§ 6.13 p.m.
§ Debate resumed.
§ Lord Pilkington of Oxenford
My Lords, returning to the debate on the gracious Speech and the British constitution, I should like to point out that the British constitution has undergone massive changes over the past 200 years—changes inconceivable in the 17th century. The Monarchy has lost most of its former powers; the franchise has been extended beyond anything our ancestors might have imagined; and the ancient common law has undergone extensive reforms. However, this massive revolution has been achieved without any violent reaction: changes enormous, yet no violent reaction.
Our last revolution was in 1688, and that was a pretty mild affair. The upheavals of 1789 in France, of 1848 in almost every part of Europe, of 1871 in France again and of 1917 in Russia were not paralleled in any manner in Great Britain. I should like to suggest that this peaceful, vast and dramatic change was accomplished for at least two reasons: first, reform in Great Britain was gradual, responding gently and perceptively to popular demand. It was not imposed from above. Secondly, and possibly more importantly, in Great Britain we kept the outward forms and trappings of history while transferring and transforming powers. The Monarchy looked the same and the rituals of the past remained. The Monarch still wore the Crown and opened Parliament in traditional ways; but behind the facade all the powers had gone to the Prime Minister and to Parliament.
The structure of Parliament changed. Its membership altered, and altered drastically, but again its outward forms remained. It kept its links with its past. The common law was transformed, but the judges kept their wigs and administered justice in a manner inconceivable to their 18th century predecessors. Let me point out a comparison. Our neighbour, France, has also witnessed massive changes over the past 200 years—changes in many ways similar to those in Great Britain—yet the manner was different. The great revolution of 1879 to 1894 destroyed almost all the past. It was a clean sweep, modernising, transforming and changing everything. Very little remained the same, but the result was not two centuries of gradual and peaceful development. I think it would be well to consider what followed the dramatic changes of the great revolution.
Further revolutions occurred in 1830, 1848 and 1871. Between 1789 and 1794 there were five republican constitutions, two royalist and two imperial. What I am suggesting is that security and harmony—the psychic security that society needs—was lost. I would further suggest that France has only experienced that security 77 which we have had for 200 years in the past 40 years, when it seemed that the divisions of the past had, hopefully, finally been healed.
We used to boast, when long ago I was a young student at school, about our success in achieving change while preserving our historical past. We felt—and it was constantly proclaimed—that this gave our society a security and an avoidance of the distress that had been produced by revolutionary change. Let us remember that of those continental countries which experienced a French revolution and the aftermath in the Napoleonic conquest seven were ruled by dictators on the eve of the Second World War.
My main reason for making a contribution tonight is not to give your Lordships a history lesson: I was paid for that for 40 years and I do not need to earn money doing it now. I say this because it seems that we are in danger of abandoning the proven patterns of the past in our approach to constitutional change. We seem, under the present Government, to have rejected that ancient idea that change should only be a response to great popular demand. As far as I can see, popular demand in the present climate of change seems only to have existed in Scotland, where I acknowledge that there was a great demand for devolution. However, in the public bars and the clubs that I frequent I do not find individuals coming up to me, even in the Garrick, and saying, "My God, that House of Lords, those hereditary Peers!" It does not seem to touch hearts.
We also seem to have abandoned the idea of maintaining the trappings—the historical links with the past—which masked the radical nature of the change that we have accomplished. For example, we talk now of changing the Monarchy—not so much its powers, which have all gone, but the trappings are suddenly seen to be in need of change. The traditional patterns of Parliament, which were borne by radicals throughout this century, and were even valued by the former Prime Minister, Mr. Attlee, are now under question. There appears to be a feeling that we lost by not having those great modernising and revolutionary changes which France and other large parts of Europe experienced between 1789 and 1815. Then the past was erased and a new world was created.
I hope that that is not the feeling of the present Government. I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will reassure me about that fact. If it is, I believe that they are wrong, and dangerously wrong. I hope that in all constitutional changes that they are inaugurating they may give thought to the manner of constitutional growth in the past and the way in which the disturbing effects of change were masked by preserving the appearance of continuity. Without that we may find that that security, which has been characteristic of British history over the past 200 years and which enabled us to be at ease with our past while adapting to change, will be lost and lost for ever. As all history shows us, societies are fragile entities and care must be taken in dealing with their structure and forms.
I end by saying that French history did not begin on 14th July 1789 as France found out to its cost in the violent and divisive century that followed. I can only 78 echo the words of my noble friend Lord Cranborne and hope that the Lord Chancellor also does not believe that it began on 1st May 1997. The forms of the past often mask massive change and avoid revolution.
§ 6.21 p.m.
§ Lord Monkswell
My Lords, by intervening in this debate I should like first to pay tribute to the Leader of the House, my noble friend Lady Jay, for the very effective way in which she introduced the debate this afternoon. I also pay tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for his contribution—not, unfortunately that which he made today, which did not come up to his usual high standard—to politics that he has made over the past 18 months.
In the short period of time in which I shall address the House I wish to touch on two matters. The first is to refer to some statistical facts. Secondly, I shall talk about timing. The main subject I shall be addressing is the reform of your Lordships' House. I pay tribute to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, for his political acumen over the past 18 months. We need to recognise that it is almost solely due to him that we are looking at accelerated progression to what one might describe as stage two in the reform of your Lordships' House. Unfortunately, one of the difficulties is that he has also put on the agenda the suggestion that life Peers are somehow second-class Members of your Lordships' House. As a Labour hereditary Peer I refute that entirely. In my experience during 13 years in your Lordships' House I hope that I have come to respect every Member of it. I do not necessarily agree with their political stance, but I respect them for the contributions that they make to the way in which the House works.
One matter which has not been touched on greatly this afternoon, and in previous debates on the reform of your Lordships' House, concerns the numbers involved. Currently there are 1,166 Members of your Lordships' House of whom 41 per cent, are Conservative; 15 per cent, are Labour; 6 per cent, are Liberal Democrats; and 38 per cent, claim no political allegiance and are generally referred to as Cross-Benchers. It is interesting to reflect that out of 750 hereditary Peers, only 18, which is 2.4 per cent., take the Labour Whip. I have argued before that that demonstrates that the hereditary peerage in general is totally out of touch with the modern political realities of the United Kingdom.
If we were to look at the situation after we hereditary Peers have left the Chamber, membership of the House of Lords will amount to about 540 Members. As my noble friend Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede said in an excellent speech this afternoon, it will still be the largest second Chamber in a parliamentary system in the world. If one considers the make up of the life Peer Members of this House as it will be constituted later on—I hope, in this parliamentary Session—the figures are as follows: Conservative 177, which equates to 33 per cent.; Labour, 159, which is 29 per cent.; Liberal Democrats, 45, equating to 8 per cent, and Cross-Benchers 159, equating to 29 per cent. The reason I have quoted those figures is that there is a considerable amount of misconception that a reformed House of 79 Lords will be a House of Prime Ministerial patronage, Tony Blair's poodles. I cannot imagine that the 130-odd life Peers which the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, created during her term of office, would be described as Tony Blair's poodles. One remembers life Peers created by nine Prime Ministers since the days of Harold Macmillan. I hope that we shall hear no more argument about the fact that a reformed House of Lords would not be independent and be able to do a very effective job in revising and questioning Government legislation brought forth from the other House.
The second matter is timing. My family has been involved in British politics since 1832. One of my ancestors was elected as the first Member of Parliament for the City of Plymouth. I suggest to the House that the development of modern democracy that we have seen evolving in this country stems from that landmark, the Reform Act 1832. It began the progress of parliamentary elected democracy in a real sense in this country. Over the period from 1832 we have seen, first, an extension of the franchise to women and, in Harold Wilson's government, an extension of the vote to 18 year-olds. There has been a continuing march of democratic modernisation. In that process the powers and responsibilities of the peerage have declined. I believe that we all recognise that it is totally right that that should be so.
We are faced with the situation where either just before or after the millennium the hereditary Peers will no longer have the right to sit and vote in this House. I hope that it can be agreed across the Chamber that the manner of the going of hereditary Peers will reflect well on the contribution that we and our ancestors have made over the past 200 years of British political development. It would be pleasant to believe that at the beginning of the new millennium the hereditary peerage will no longer have a place in the House of Lords. I am worried about the possibility that we could go into the next century having to be dragged kicking and screaming from this Chamber. That would be a stain on the new century and on our characters. It would be remembered throughout the new century. I make a plea that we go with dignity. By going with dignity, we can gain the respect for the contribution that we and our forefathers have made to public life. We should go with respect.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord Harmsworth
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, deplores the small number of hereditary Peers sitting on his Benches. That could be explained by the policies of his party during the 1960s and 1970s.
I feel I should ask the indulgence of the House for speaking on reform of your Lordships' House for the first time today. We were flying back from Penang on 14th October, the first day of the excellent debate on the subject. We arrived early in the morning of the 15th by which time it was too late for me to make a contribution.
One thing I would not like to see is a change in the balance of powers between your Lordships' House and the other place. For me, the most important consideration in any reform would be success in retaining the essentially revising nature of your 80 Lordships' legislative business. How many times have I heard from the Cross-Bench judges that we must get the legislation right here or they will be making judgments based on bad law. I fear that the kind of changes I have now read about, which were extensively aired in mid-October, promise only a more powerful upper Chamber, with the possibility of less attention to drafting detail. Competition is hardly something which the House of Commons should or might want.
In a way, I am surprised that the Government, with their passion for control, would wish to strengthen the status of this Chamber. Removal of hereditary Peers will, in one fell swoop, place control of legislation further from the grasp of government—government of any hue. Like it or not, hereditary Peers must provide what is, as near as can be, an automatic and copper-bottomed guarantee of the status of this House as a revising Chamber. Remove the hereditary Peers and the immediate result will be a change of authenticity, resulting in a competitive Chamber with the Commons, with the possibility of loss of legislation on a scale hitherto unseen.
Many years ago I read Lord Shackleton's brilliant report, which was to become a Command Paper, on the Falkland Islands. Shortly afterwards I was talking to a very senior diplomat. He told me that there was a value in the Falklands to the Argentines. It was this: when domestic politics reached very heated and difficult stages, the head of state would rattle his sabre and cry, "Let us go and get the Falklands." Everybody would forget what they were arguing about and the matter would then be quietly dropped, the ruse having done its job. In this context, the mistake that Galtieri made was that he actually invaded. The tool was valuable only as a tool. Members of another place and your Lordships may wish to consider whether there is some parallel here with the presence of hereditary Peers in this Chamber.
Apart from wishing to perpetuate constitutional change in the English way, from the bottom up and not from the top down as is done on the Continent—and how much better have we been than our continental friends over the centuries at constitutional change—for my money, I would much like to see the present balance of power little changed, and the role of this House likewise, other than possibly in ways suggested by my noble friend Lord Hurd. Even then, reform should start at the bottom end of the legislative production line and not at the top. Stabbing at reforms before watching how imbalances lower down the line shape out is no way to manage anything.
My impression is that your Lordships' House in the past year or so has been beginning to behave more like it will inevitably do with the hereditaries gone. If it is not too late, and until we have sight of the Government's detailed plans, let us keep our imperfect but largely efficacious automatic balancing mechanisms.
§ 6.35 p.m.
§ The Earl of Mar and Kellie
My Lords, there was much to be thankful for in the gracious Speech of 1997. Many useful alterations were made towards the much-needed reform of the United Kingdom, and for 81 those I am particularly grateful, especially the Scottish Parliament. This time around we have more constitutional change, and some omissions from what I believe ought to have been in the gracious Speech.
Certainly, the reform of the membership of this House was well heralded. Had it not been in the gracious Speech yesterday, it would have proved to have been one of the greatest wind-ups of all time. More of a pity was the mention of, rather than proposals for, the reform of the work of this House. Clearly, there is a need for real proposals, as the antics of last week may have confirmed. One hopes that the Royal Commission will come back speedily with practical proposals within the timeframe mentioned. I hope that the peerage Bill—or whatever it is called—and the preceding White Paper will be published soon.
In the meantime, I hope that we can see an end to the blanket criticism of the hereditary peerage. There has been far too much of it in recent months. The individual's right to reputation extends to all citizens, even to hereditary Peers.
I conclude this section of my remarks with three reminders. First, hereditary Peers are not a corporate group. Secondly, Peers in receipt of writs of summons are legitimate Members of the House, with a duty to attend, participate and vote. Thirdly—this is my most substantive point—the peerage of Scotland have always attended by statute, as do Peeresses in their own right and life Peers. Of course, statutes can be repealed, and I claim no protection from those provisions.
This brings me to more positive thoughts about the reform of this House, allied to reforms of the constitution of the United Kingdom and Scotland's future participation in it. Stage one, the reform of this House, will bring about a need for new provisions for a statutorily guaranteed number of working Peers domiciled in Scotland. Despite devolution, there will still be Scottish clauses of UK legislation and Scots law provisions being scrutinised in this House. This is best done, with the greatest commitment, by citizens who will be subject to those new Scottish provisions.
To back up that claim, there is an important constitutional principle which the Government would be foolish to ignore at a time when scepticism about the United Kingdom connection is rife in Scotland. The peerage of Scotland have attended this House by statute since 1707, as have at least 45 MPs. Their attendance is a condition of the Treaty. Articles 22 and 23 and the two supporting Acts confirm all this. For the past 291 years Scottish representation in this House has been guaranteed by statute. In 1963, Section 4 of the Peerage Act repealed the mechanism for, and the need for, the election of 16 Peers representative of the peerage of Scotland. Since then the whole peerage of Scotland, which is about 130 in number, has been eligible to attend this House.
To be competent, any reform of this House will need to deal with the appropriate repeals and, more importantly, to ensure a continuing guarantee of Scottish representation. Any government who tinker with the foundation statutes of the United Kingdom, or any other Union state, do so at their peril.
82 At this time the issue of Scottish membership of the United Kingdom is really only one of principle, despite the scare stories, many of which come over in the category of either pathetic or out of date. Membership of the United Kingdom needs to be presented at all times in Scotland as a positive. Hence my continuing enthusiasm for the radical reform of the United Kingdom, one in which the people of Scotland can find their true and unstifled destiny and pursue their rightful task of autonomous government. Anything less and the new Union project will fail.
Perhaps I may move on to a completely different subject which interests me. On an environmental tack, I am surprised by the omission of any proposals for public access to the hill country in England and Wales. This is a serious issue which needs to be dealt with by government with real vision—a vision of how to marry up the recreational and health needs of the urban population with the working needs of the rural population. At present I feel that the various sides are just shouting at each other. The preparation of a balanced and heavy duty new countryside code will help, backed up by a means of sharing the load of liability, and wear and tear from increased use of footpaths and other recreational facilities. I am pleased to read in The Scotsman newspaper that the Scottish Office is well ahead in this respect, with the aim of presentation of a Scottish public access Bill in the first session of the Scottish Parliament.
Given the substantially different legislative and philosophical background to public access in the Scottish jurisdiction from that of England and Wales, I suspect that the process south of the Border will be very different and there may not be too much to learn from the Scots law process. It is an issue that needs to be brought down off the hills and into the low country. The demand for recreational walking is predominantly in the low country adjacent to urban areas. This is a health issue as well as being one of sustainability. I believe that there is a means of resolving the conflicting demands of public access and cultivation or stock rearing. I look forward to initiatives by the Government along these lines.
In conclusion, I look forward to participating in the scrutiny of the new criminal justice measures, the constitutional Bills and the Scottish clauses of UK legislation. My immediate view is that I am a working Peer from Scotland until I am sent home.
§ 6.43 p.m.
§ Lord Vivian
My Lords, I very much regret that I was unable to speak in the recent two-day debate in your Lordships' House on the reform of this Chamber. I now have an opportunity to do so with the advantage of having read your Lordships' contributions in that debate, for which I am indebted and which have made me better informed. In my contribution I shall try to summarise the position we have reached on the reform of your Lordships' House, looking at the background and effects that the current government position will have on this Chamber.
83 Before I do that I should like to stress to your Lordships that I have not met anyone on these Benches who does not wish to see reform take place provided that those reforms improve the purpose, functions, powers and composition in your Lordships' House and make it a better place. I should like to remind your Lordships that this House voted substantially for reform in 1968, but that was axed by a Labour Prime Minister in 1969.
I should also like to comment on the Labour Party manifesto statement. First, why is there such a rush to abolish hereditary Peers, and why does it have to be done as a first stage and not as part of overall reform of this Chamber? Many of your Lordships and a large section of the general public fear that once they have been thrown out no reform of this House will ever take place. Perhaps the Government feel that their task will be very much easier if there are no hereditary Peers within the consultation process. There was no mention in the Labour Party manifesto that this had to be addressed with such speed, and in any event surely it would have been courteous to have entered into cross-party consultation. I understand that there has been no cross-party consultation, no proposals made to any of the parties and no logical reasons given as to why hereditary Peers should be abolished. My Lords, surely this is a most arrogant way to address this subject and not becoming to the manner in which matters are conducted in your Lordships' House.
The second question I should like to raise about the manifesto statement is why the abolition of hereditary Peers as a first stage will make this House any more democratic and representative. The appointment of life Peers with party ties through prime ministerial patronage could be considered to be less democratic than those who sit by the rights of their ancestors. While nobody would deny that an accident of birth should not automatically qualify a person for high office, it is equally undemocratic to disqualify someone arbitrarily for this same accident. The Government have yet to explain what is intrinsically more democratic about a nominated House than the present one, especially one where nominations are made by, or on the advice of, an unelected committee. The hereditary Peers provide much of the independence which is so essential to a second chamber, and many of them encompass broad horizons as they do not necessarily focus on a single career.
It is not true to say that the Government lose Divisions only because of the votes of undemocratic hereditary Peers. Discounting the votes of hereditary Peers, a number of government defeats would have taken place on the votes of life Peers alone; for example, by 71 votes to 66 on 5th March on the protection of pharmacies in the Competition Bill; by 99 votes to 80 on the principle of equal treatment for Scottish students on 23rd June; by 152 votes to 91 on the same issue on 7th July; by 77 votes to 70 on 2nd July on the School Standards and Framework Bill and by 93 votes to 89 on 13th July on the same Bill; and by 128 votes to 93 on the age of consent on the Crime and Disorder Bill. So, my Lords, perhaps the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will explain why there is such a hurry to 84 abolish hereditary Peers and why this matter cannot be addressed as part of the overall reforms for your Lordships' House.
The Government's position is having the effect of splitting your Lordships' House into two camps. The happy atmosphere that existed, the courtesy extended to one another and the kindly and helpful attitude shown to each other are fast disappearing. This is not helpful at a time when the House is to be reformed and in fact is damaging the good relations that have always existed in your Lordships' House. In addition, it is clear that without detailed agreement on the shape of a new House, stage one—the abolition of hereditary Peers— would bring about a second chamber nominated entirely by the Prime Minister or agents appointed with his approval to undertake this task. This is a power that no politician has sought since Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s.
The abolition of hereditary Peers would increase hugely the Prime Minister's patronage. It would throw two-thirds of the independent Cross-Benchers out of the Lords at a stroke; erode the independence of the Lords and allow the political party in power to turn the Lords into a rubber stamping organisation, not a true revising chamber.
There is also a disturbing pattern of political authoritarianism in the Government's proposals. I should like to draw to your Lordships' attention the fact that the Labour Party has already subjected the right of local parties to choose councillors and Members of Parliament to the diktat of party headquarters. Noble Lords will be well aware that last week the same would have happened to MEPs if your Lordships had not decided to vote against the closed list. It would be a potentially highly dangerous matter if Members of this House were nominated only by the Prime Minister or by a committee approved by him. The reality is—
§ Lord Hacking
My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. I do not know whether the noble Lord heard the noble Baroness the Leader of the House speak at the beginning of this debate, but she said most plainly that the Government are producing a White Paper to look at the whole of the selection process for life Peers. She also said specifically in her opening comments that the Prime Minister was giving up any role of patronage he has in the selection of life Peers.
§ Lord Vivian
My Lords, I am grateful for that intervention, but it is still an unelected committee. I was present at the start of the debate and I have been present throughout.
To save time I shall not repeat my noble friend Lord Cranborne's six main principles for reform as they have been well documented. However, I believe strongly that these principles should constitute an agreed baseline for further consultation when the purposes, functions, powers and composition of your Lordships' House can be addressed. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor may wish to comment on those principles when he replies to the debate.
85 I accept the main purposes set out by the Mackay Commission, which are to share with the Commons the responsibility for the enactment of legislation; to act as a check on the House of Commons' use of its powers; to balance the political dynamics of the Commons within Parliament by providing an alternative parliamentary forum for political activity; to provide a mechanism for reconsideration of issues within Parliament; to supplement the work of the House of Commons; to balance the relationship between Westminster and the assemblies and any further devolved bodies; to provide a means of mediating between European institutions and the United Kingdom and to represent other institutions and interests in this country.
I believe that the main functions of your Lordships' House should continue to be discussing legislation and debating public issues and policy in a way that is frequently different from, and in greater depth, than discussion in the House of Commons. It should continue to provide additional scrutiny of the activities of government and to conduct in-depth policy reviews through the Select Committees. It should continue to provide safeguards for the integrity and balance of our constitutional arrangements. It should encompass special responsibility for the parliamentary supervision of human rights and undertake detailed scrutiny of, and exercise special control over, the policies and legislation of the European Union as they affect the United Kingdom, over and above the work undertaken by the House of Commons. It should be more representative and cover the Scottish parliament and the assemblies, the United Kingdom regions, the European Union, local government, professional, academic, industrial and trade institutions, the trade unions, the Churches and other faith communities, minority and special interest groups, individuals with special expertise and experience, and the peerage.
This brings me to the powers of the House of Lords. On the basis of existing parliamentary practice, the key powers and privileges that the second Chamber might enjoy might include the power absolutely to block, delay and amend primary and secondary legislation; the power to compel individuals to appear before the House or its committees and to provide parliamentary privilege conferring immunity from prosecution for offences such as libel for remarks made in debates in Parliament. Other powers might include the approval of certain government appointments and increased powers over financial legislation.
I now turn to the composition of a future Chamber. If reform goes ahead, the composition of any future Chamber should be dependent on the purposes, functions, powers and representation that are required. If your Lordships were to agree with what I have already said, I would suggest that the second Chamber should not be composed on a political basis, but on a functional and representative one. It should either be a fully elected Chamber or an appointed one. If it is to be the latter, a Royal Commission or some such body selected from the Privy Council, should be appointed to establish a representative Select Committee of Peers, which should be empowered to nominate both hereditary and life 86 Peers, after application to them, as members of a functional and representative Chamber. I suggest that these members should be known as Lords of Parliament, LPs, a title in line with MPs, and this should dispense with any distinction between these two types of Peers.
This body should also decide the number of Peers that should constitute this Chamber. Perhaps a figure of about 800 would provide some 400 Peers who attend daily, which is similar to the present daily attendance. A government Bench would be required from which the government would introduce their case for new legislation. The rest of the House would table amendments in an attempt to improve this legislation, propose Motions, ask oral and written Questions and vote in Divisions in accordance with their own assessment, their experience, their conscience and what is in the best interests of the country.
I say in summing up that your Lordships' Chamber should be independent of any political party. It should continue to give good value for money and remain the main place for the scrutiny and revision of legislation. It is hard working. It has been called one of the busiest chambers in the world. It has sat for an average of 143 days a year and in the past four sitting Sessions has sat for an average of seven hours a day with about 84 sittings after 10 p.m. Your Lordships' Chamber has made over 2,000 amendments to Bills most years and in the past Session some 3,963 amendments were made, almost all of which were accepted by the other place. This signifies that between 75 per cent, and 80 per cent, of all amendments to Bills are made in this Chamber. Since May 1997 this Chamber has asked the Government to think again on various issues, for example students' grants and tuition fees in Scotland, the age of consent for homosexuals, freeing Churches and Church schools from interference by secular European human rights laws, and the proposal that closed lists should be the system for voting in European elections. These are all subjects that affect the interests of the nation.
There should be cross-party talks before any stages of reform are entered into; otherwise the second Chamber could become the largest quango in the land purely rubber stamping business from the other place. That would lead to a complete elective dictatorship. In the interests of the nation there must not be abolition of hereditary Peers before any proper reform of your Lordships' House takes place. The position of these Peers must be taken into account as part of overall reform. I believe the case for combining the first and second stages of reform is compelling.
§ 6.58 p.m.
§ Lord Wilberforce
My Lords, if I do not follow the noble Lord who has just spoken in his comprehensive review of these great constitutional issues which face your Lordships now and in the course of the next year, that is not because I wish to minimise in any way their importance or the difficulties involved, or because I do not have views on the matter which I should like to share with your Lordships. I do have views on the matter but there is a limit to your Lordships' patience, even 87 during a long debate such as this. I know that many others have and will discuss those issues comprehensively.
The debate encompasses both constitutional and legal affairs. I wish to lay emphasis on the latter. In her illuminating speech, the noble Baroness the Leader of the House had hardly mentioned the word "legal" before she was able to say that such matters would be dealt with by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. Equally, the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, had hardly uttered the word "legal" before he was at pains to say that such matters were being dealt with by his noble friend Lord Kingsland. I notice, unhappily, that those two eminent authorities are right at the bottom of the speakers' list. Therefore, perhaps it may not be inappropriate if one of the foot soldiers in the middle tries to say a little about legal matters. After all, as the noble Viscount reminded us, life has to go on, whatever we are trying to do with the constitution—and there are important matters with which the Government will have to deal.
I want briefly to comment on one legal topic: reform of the substantive law mainly through the enactment of Law Commission report recommendations. I find it disappointing that the gracious Speech, although containing the usual,Other measures will be laid before you",did not, as often happens, contain the codicil, "including measures of law reform". Last year, I did not speak on this subject because it seemed to me to be obvious that, with a new Parliament, there would be a period of ample legislative vacation and time before the flood of legislation started to flow. There was indeed a considerable period at the beginning of the previous Session when we did not sit on Fridays, had early nights and a very light programme, but there was no flood of law reform measures. The whole year can be signalled as one of very disappointing action in that area. Although the present situation is much more difficult, with a much greater burden of legislation facing us, I want to urge the cause of law reform this year.
I am, of course, perfectly aware that very important measures of modernisation in the legal field are to come. References are made in the gracious Speech to the justice system, a community law service, the youth courts and the protection of witnesses, and the Government have on hand the mammoth task of modernising legal aid. In the course of the year, the whole system of civil litigation will undergo vast changes under the Woolf reforms. All that is extremely valuable and will call for much work and effort in this place and elsewhere. However, it lies almost wholly in the area of administration and procedure and there is very little left for the substantive law. Perhaps I am not being unduly cynical when I say that the reason may be that administration and procedure cost money and, as we know, big money in the area of legal aid—£1.5 billion in a year—whereas substantive law does not, on the short view at any rate, do the same. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to give us some assurance that the cause of law reform is not forgotten or even postponed for another year.
88 There are already a number of excellent Law Commission reports which are all ready and crying out for legislation. There will be more in the course of the year. I shall not weary your Lordships with a list, but shall single out one—I refer to that relating to offences against the person—which has been outstanding since 1993, and as to which there is a draft Bill which has received favourable consultation. The existing law is out of date, confused and wrong, giving rise to a great many unnecessary prosecutions and so even attracting a money dimension. That is just one example. There are many others of equal merit.
Of course, the answer may be, "No legislative time", but that easy answer simply will not do. If the present system does not provide enough legislative time, we must change the system to ensure that it does. In this House we already have an excellent procedure for handling comparatively simple and non-controversial measures which has worked well. I refer to the Select Committee procedure. However, I respectfully urge the Government most urgently to consider selecting and adapting that procedure to deal with major matters. One such major matter is establishing a criminal code. A criminal code is urgently needed. All the work has been done. Nobody who has heard the recent speech of the Lord Chief Justice at the Lord Mayor's Banquet can doubt any longer that the time has really come for the enactment of such a code. Again, that would save a great deal of money.
The same theme was enlarged yesterday by the Hardwicke Lecture, given in Lincoln's Inn by the chairman of the Law Commission. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the chairman of the Law Commission for her extremely good and distinguished work during her period of office. However, enacting a criminal code would require a new procedure. Several hundred clauses cannot be handled in the normal way in Committee, even in the Moses Room. The same problem will occur even more intensely if we come to the project on simplified and modernised tax legislation which we were told very reassuringly only a few weeks ago, is well under way. That is an extremely important subject. It is of great interest to everybody and, again, a great money-saver. Such a Bill would involve at least 1,000 clauses, if not more, and could not possibly be accommodated within conventional procedures.
So I urge the Government to consider, either through the Select Committee on Procedure or an ad hoc committee, how we can carry such matters forward so that in the next Queen's Speech—I have given up for this year—we may be assured of such legislation. Do not let law reform be forgotten. It should be cherished. It is well within a programme of modernisation. It is well worth finding time for, and well within the capacity and ambition of the Government. I urge the Government to take it seriously.
§ 7.6 p.m.
§ Baroness Strange
My Lords, the rude interruptions yesterday to the gracious Speech were something which saddened and shocked us all. As far as I can ascertain, nothing like that has ever happened before. They were 89 an insult to Her Majesty, an insult to Her Majesty's Government and an insult to the whole of your Lordships' House. What was even worse, the Evening Standard, the BBC, The Times, and the Daily Telegraph attributed the noise to the hereditary Peers. That was not true. Every single person in this Chamber sat as silent as a stone. The baying came from beyond the Bar. It was not until we had all been to many jolly parties and with family and friends enjoyed the amazing banquets which Mr. Bibbiani, Miss McWilliam and all the refreshment staff had clearly been working round several clocks to achieve—we thank them enormously—that we began to feel restored.
Yesterday's opening speeches also contributed much to restoring your Lordships' House to its usual high level of peace, harmony and good sense. Although she is not in her place, I should particularly like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, who is also my noble friend when we are not in the Chamber, on her charming, funny and witty speech. "Scotland forever", I would say!
I am against discrimination. I am sure, on reflection, that all your Lordships are also. I do not like being discriminated against because I am a woman, Scottish, an hereditary Peer, old and fat—although I mind less about the last because that is my own fault; none of the others is. Only in the last year has this element of discrimination crept insidiously into your Lordships' House cloaked under the guise of reform. I do not personally think that your Lordships' House needs reform. I think that it is perfect as it is.
However, if reform is felt to be necessary, I suggest that we retain, without discrimination of any kind, all the Peers who regularly attend and contribute to this House. There are only between 400 and 500 of them, and we all know who they are. Those who failed on either of those criteria would be entitled to speak but not to vote. There should be parity between the strengths of the two major parties, with the balance being held by the Cross-Benchers, which I am sure the usual channels, mindful of the milk of human kindness that flows along them, could easily arrange. Perhaps—though I say this reluctantly—after 10 years without a maiden speech, the privilege of speaking might also be withdrawn. Every new Peer, either on creation or on succession, should have a year's grace to see whether he or she fulfils the two criteria. There should be no discrimination on the ground of age—many noble Lords are only beginning to peak after their 90th year—although I should not personally lower the younger age limit below 21.
Noble Lords must be aware by now that the first Lord Strange of my creation was beheaded at Bolton for supporting his monarch in 1651. He was wounded in the fight in Wigan Lane in August, taken prisoner after the Battle of Worcester in September and beheaded on 15th October, at the age of 44. His last words were: "I die for God, the King and the laws, and this makes me not be ashamed of my life nor afraid of my death".
§ 7.11 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, in her delightful speech the noble Baroness said that this House was perfect. I have been in the House for 53 years and I love it. After being here so long I should despise anyone who did not. The House has rendered great service to the nation, and in a lesser sense to the world, and has not done any harm that I can think of. So I go a long way, if not quite the whole way, with the noble Baroness when she says that it is perfect.
On an earlier occasion I paid tribute, as I do again, to the collective services rendered by the hereditary Peers—not, I am bound to say, all of them, but a sufficient number to earn the gratitude of the nation for their work collectively speaking. On a previous occasion I made a speech which later drew thanks from Members. I do not know what the Front Bench thought about it. But they are kindly, youthful people—
§ The Earl of Longford
Both youthful and useful, my Lords. I know that they are tolerant of senile deviations. I consider the intellectual quality of debates in this Chamber to be unrivalled, and there is a special quality of civilised decency which I have not heard of or read about as existing elsewhere. So there are great values attached to this House. Reform is bound to come. I only hope that in the new Chamber the essential values of the existing Chamber will be retained.
That said, I may be asked how I relate these high-sounding propositions to the Bill that will come before us. I suppose that the duty to vote will fall upon us every now and then during the next few months. I see that the noble and learned Lord is leaving, so I have already lost one distinguished member of my audience. I hope I have not said something shocking. I have not referred to breeches or any such indelicate subject. I am bound to relate these high-sounding remarks to actual voting intentions.
Before expanding on that, I wish to back up the remarks of the noble Baroness in denouncing an age limit. On a previous occasion, one of the most distinguished Members of this House suggested an age limit of 75, which found very few supporters at the time. I admit to bias in this regard. I confidently submit the proposition that as we get older, we get wiser—until, of course, the moment comes when we lose our marbles! But it is up to the House to say of any speaker, including myself, that that moment has arrived. On the whole, that does happen. I remember sitting on the Benches opposite, near to the Bar, and a great friend of mine, who was then rather past his intellectual prime, was sitting within a yard or two of his wife. When the matter came to a vote, he turned to me and asked (I shall not use his wife's actual name): "Can Daphne vote?". I could see that there was something wrong, and he did not reappear. So on the whole the House knows how to deal with people who have rendered great service but whose time has come.
On the whole, as we get older, we get wiser, as I feel sure the Prime Minister, whom I greatly admire, would agree when he is as old as a former Labour Prime 91 Minister whom I have admired for much longer; namely, the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan. I am sure the Prime Minister would agree that, 40 years from now, he will be wiser than he is today. It is an eternal proposition. Of course, we do not become more energetic. We could not compete with younger people, for instance those who work at the Bar and may sit up all night over cases, and so on. This is not intended to be a full-time Chamber. People bring valuable contributions from their work outside. Except for the leading politicians on the Front Benches, Members are not expected to attend full time. Therefore I do not think that age should enter into these calculations.
Returning to my previous point, if there are to be votes in the coming months, how shall I vote?
§ The Earl of Longford
Every now and then, my Lords.
I was Leader of this House 30 years ago—I dare say before some of the younger Members were born or before they had grown up. I was here before the present Prime Minister was born. Thirty years ago I moved an amendment to a Bill introducing the "two-writ plan", under which hereditary Peers would attend and speak, but not be allowed to vote. It was accepted with firm acclamation by all the party leaders. It was sabotaged in the House of Commons by a strange combination whose Members I need not mention now. I still believe that it is the best idea, and indeed the only sensible compromise. I hope that someone of more contemporary significance than myself will reintroduce that proposal. If not, I shall have to do so myself. If it falls for lack of support, that is too bad. I shall have done my duty. Assuming that it falls by the wayside, there will no doubt be other amendments, and I might do well to keep my options open.
However, in the last resort, if my noble friend puts me to the test, I shall support the Government. I shall consider the issues. I shall feel great reluctance to take any step which would damage the real and lasting values of this House. As I think and pray about these matters, I shall remember that I had the great honour of being appointed Leader of this House by a Labour Prime Minister and was brought into the House before that by a Labour Prime Minister. Without the Labour Party I would have been and would be politically nothing.
§ 7.20 p.m.
The Earl of Clanwilliam
My Lords, it is a daunting task to follow the noble Earl after his eloquent and charming speech. He sits as a Baron in two respects: first, as a hereditary Baron of his own creation and, secondly, as the fifth Baron created in 1821. That was the same year as the creation of the barony for which I sit. I said that I could not speak with the same charm and eloquence of the noble Earl and I am afraid I shall be more controversial. However, anything which removes the right of the noble Earl to sit and speak in this House would be to its great disadvantage.
92 The removal of the hereditary rights of the hereditary Peers raises the question whether it is the intention to score party political points or whether it is to weaken the power of the upper House. Neither seems to me a positive contribution to the constitutional question. It is the privilege and duty of the hereditary Peers and of all Peers to ensure that a viable alternative is secured in place of them. Without infringing the customs of the House, perhaps I may mention the maiden speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Butler of Brockwell and Lord Norton of Louth, both of whom pointed out the need to ensure that a viable alternative is secured in place of them. It does not seem to me from the proposals put forward in the gracious Speech that such a position will be secured in the course of the deliberations of the Royal Commission. As has been adequately mentioned already, it may take so long to come to a conclusion that there will have been established either a unicameral legislature or a committed quango of acquiescents.
The noble Baroness the Leader of the House pointed out that there would be a tight timetable. My noble friend Lord Cranborne asked that the subjects to be covered in the White Paper should be clearly and eloquently pointed out today. It is time to have that because without it there can be no realistic discussion of the future course to be taken.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, pointed out, it was noticeable that during the gracious Speech there was a cheer—to put it politely—if not exactly barracking from some Members of the other place when the point came to mention the removal of the rights of hereditary Peers to sit and vote. It may have been bad manners, but it was also a significant precursor to the assumption that there would be no more interference with their wishes, regardless of the constitutional consequences, of which this House is the guardian.
For that reason, it is likely that there will be considerable resistance to the legislative programme until it is certain that there will be an established form of reform for both Houses. It is worth recalling that the 1911 Act, which fell by the way, insisted on,a strong and effective House of Lords".That is what we need and what most hereditaries are calling for. There is no great personal benefit to me. I am in my 80th year. And it means nothing to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, whose age I am approaching. I do not expect great benefit from whatever decision may be taken. There has been mention—I hasten to admit not from the Government Benches—of some form of compromise such as granting Government, Liberal and even Cross-Bench life peerages.
That brings me, by a somewhat circuitous route, to the second point I wish to mention: the disenfranchisement of the Irish Peers. Incidentally, they have the same rights as Scottish Peers from a treaty more recent than the Act of Union; indeed, under the auspices of Castlereagh and Pitt in 1800. This may not be the time to ask for reconsideration of their plight, but it occurs to me that this may be the last opportunity to mention the slight they feel has been put upon them. If there is to be any form of compromise, then their position should be considered within that compromise.
93 The Peers of Ireland owed the creation of their peerages to English sovereignty. From the 13th century to 1800 the two Houses in Ireland and England developed along broadly parallel lines. Under the terms of the Act of Union of Great Britain and Ireland in 1800, the Irish Peers consented to the elimination of their 150-seat assembly in Dublin in return for 28 seats in the more powerful House of Lords at Westminster, to be filled by an election among themselves.
The Act set out in considerable detail the manner in which,the twenty eight lords temporal to represent the peerage of Ireland in the peerage of the United Kingdom",were to be elected. Since 1919, however—incidentally, the year I was born—nothing was done to honour the agreement and the last Irish representative Peer died in 1961. The Irish Peers Association, of which I have recently been made a committee member, was formed in 1963 to promote the interests of the Irish Peers who had thus become disenfranchised.
It is not that they purport to represent the people of Ireland but that they are the inheritors of a personal right secured to them by law. In my submission, it is proper that the matter should be raised at this time and appear on the records of the House. There is much additional detail which I shall refrain from extrapolating as the matter has already been before all-party committees, especially in one instance the Committee of Privileges in its report of 5th July 1966 when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, dissented. I see that the noble and learned Lord is in his place. He kindly agreed to allow me to use his name.
It came up again in 1971. The Joint Committee on Consolidation Bills voted only by a majority to deprive the Irish Peers of their rights. The father of my noble friend Lord Massereene—my noble friend is not in his place—and the noble Lord, Lord Rees, dissented from the findings of the committee. I submit therefore that this is not an open and shut case. There has been dissent.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, I expect your Lordships will be pleased to know that the majority of the speech I wished to make has been torn up, not least as some of the points I wanted to make have been clearly outlined this afternoon. That was done notably by the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam. I was interested in his comments on the Irish Peers; we are both members of the Irish Peers Association. That line might commend itself for recommendation by the proposed Royal Commission.
Like one or two previous speakers, notably the noble Lords, Lord Vivian and Lord Harmsworth, I regret that I was unable to attend the magnificent debate that your Lordships had last month, simply because I could not be here for the two days. I could do one but not the other. It only goes to show that there being about 130 speakers plus another 35 this afternoon on the one subject seems to demonstrate the enormity of the subject put before us by the Government.
94 One constructive point which came out of the first debate was that, I think I am right in saying, the Government then realised that the matter should be considered in depth by a Royal Commission. We heard in the gracious Speech that a White Paper would be published. That is a tremendous step forward.
I support reform of your Lordships' House, as I believe do most people on all sides of the House, but completely to abolish something that has worked, is working and will go on working is very regrettable, to put it mildly.
I have a good deal of sympathy with the Leader of the House and the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, who referred to the in-built Conservative majority and how unfair it was given the perceived allegiance of hereditary Peers to that particular cause. It cannot be much fun always going in to bat knowing that one faces the best bowler in the world and one will be out without scoring a single run. I believe that this is the root cause of why this matter is being discussed. If one had the privilege of being able to issue strong Whips to enable legislation to be frustrated or pushed through, depending on which side of the argument lay the Conservative Party, we would not be in this position and the Government would find the situation tolerably acceptable. They would not care to admit it but I believe that they could live with it. That would be a tremendous step forward in making this House more publicly acceptable in areas where many people probably find it unacceptable.
One must remember that the ultimate role of your Lordships' House is to prevent the Government from prolonging their life and, in the end, to act as the guardian of the constitution. It stops any government— I do not mean this particular one—with a large majority from undermining the constitution. That was ably demonstrated last week. Although a rather unedifying spectacle took place which I do not believe enhanced British politics very much, we were absolutely right to do what we did. That shows the definite need for a Chamber such as this in a modified form. But to try to consider all of the various options open to us—everyone has excellent ideas, all of which deserve recognition and consideration—is perhaps too much for a debating Chamber in one debate, two debates or what you will and to get the answer right.
I am extremely grateful that the Government have agreed to set up a Royal Commission. They are to publish a White Paper setting out their ideas which are to be worked upon. Surely, the Royal Commission should operate from scratch and should not try to come up with something that we have already debated and that may be part of an approach that it may or may not recommend. We cannot legislate on something until we are aware in depth of the arguments and the reason why this, that or the other idea is acceptable.
I urge the Government to think about this very carefully. In any organisation it must be wrong for management to do away with something before it has the slightest idea of what to put in its place. I do not share the perceived fears that the Government may get rid of hereditary Peers and then sit back and do nothing. That would reflect lack of faith and trust, and I do not 95 believe that the Government could conceivably behave like that. That fear should be treated with caution. But we must have the results of the Royal Commission, it having listened to the many arguments advanced by noble Lords the other day and today. We should be able to attend the commission and put forward our points. Let the commission consider the matter and come up with an answer. If the answer took a slightly different route from that which I would like—the noble Earl, Lord Clanwilliam, has hit the nail on the head—I would accept it. I would feel on that basis that it had been properly considered. But I cannot accept, and I hope that this House will not accept, that there should be any change of this House in any shape or form unless and until we have heard the recommendations of the Royal Commission about what should happen having heard all the arguments.
Perhaps the Government should also bear in mind that with this House they are onto a very good thing. After all, we conduct ourselves reasonably well. There are only a very few occasions on which we find it absolutely necessary to put our foot down and frustrate government business. If the hereditary Peers were not here and the House were composed of life Peers the whole concept of the Salisbury convention would be ignored. There would be no reason for it; it would be far more democratic and therefore the convention would not apply. What would happen then? The other place would have far greater trouble with a House made up of life Peers and nominated Peers. To a great extent the hereditary Peers would be of great use to the other place. A good number of people may not agree with that but I am sure that that is so.
If power, which is finite, is transferred by one means or another to this House—that will happen inevitably if the hereditary element disappears—it will reduce the powers of the other place. I have never heard of anyone who wants to give up power. What about the farmer? Has one ever heard of a farmer who voluntarily gives up one square yard of land, let alone anything else? By the same token, I do not believe that the other place would be very happy to wake up one morning to find that some of the powers that it presently enjoys have been slightly eroded.
I am not very moved by the perceived idea that because this is an unelected Chamber it has no right to act according to the dictates of conscience and what it believes to be correct. I do not believe that it is possible to have it both ways. In Brussels the European Commissioners, who are responsible to no one, spend a good deal of time dictating to this country what it can and cannot do. Conservative governments, Labour governments and Liberal Democrat governments—if they are ever in power—have to go along with those instructions that come from an unelected body. They are not patriots and they are not British. Why is the country prepared to accept that but not the contributions and suggestions made by an unelected House, which at least is made up of patriotic British people? That is a point of view.
Many points can be made but I believe that they are better made to a Royal Commission. I echo the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord 96 Wilberforce. Please let the commission consider the matter and then take action. Please do not take action first.
§ 7.39 p.m.
§ Viscount Brentford
My Lords, subject to one question on a related matter, I do not propose to follow the noble Viscount down the path of discussing the future of this House. Primarily I wish to make a few comments on the legal issues raised in the gracious Speech.
First, the gracious Speech refers to modernising legal aid. I have no problems about a reformed legal aid system. But I should like to make sure that any reform means that the legal aid system will be cost efficient, competent and give choice to the consumer. When the Legal Aid Board considers the awarding of contracts I hope that it will make sure that the whole country is covered and that there are no gaps. The right to choose a solicitor is surely a basic human right for a member of the public. While I fully endorse the plea that any change should ensure the highest professional standards, I hope that the Government will encourage all firms that reach those standards to apply for a franchise to give the maximum choice to the consumer.
Secondly, I fully endorse the modernising of the youth courts and the power to refer young offenders to a special panel with the possibility, if they are prepared to plead guilty and admit the offence, of an apology to the victim and perhaps community service as punishment. In your Lordships' House I have fully endorsed some pilot schemes along those lines. I believe that it is extremely valuable to bring the offender face to face with the victim. That will be of real psychological help for the rehabilitation of the offender and in giving support to the victim. I appreciate that it will not always work, but I strongly support the move to allocate the young offender to a special panel which can make a judgment.
The gracious Speech refers to the protection of vulnerable witnesses. From some of the stories that 1 have heard, and while going round the courts and prisons in my county of Sussex, I have appreciated the need for that. From information that I have gathered, many judges do not treat witnesses the same, even in the same legal area. There is a case for uniformity. I have spoken to some judges who seek to bring uniformity at least to their own area. We need steps to protect vulnerable witnesses. I am glad to see that aspect referred to in the gracious Speech.
I hope that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will consider one small matter in his review of crime. It relates to the state of mind and health report, about which the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will know, although non-lawyers in your Lordships' House may not. When a person who has psychiatric problems commits a couple of offences, let us say within a fortnight, he is entitled on each occasion to demand a state of mind and health report. If it is made twice within a fortnight, the report will be exactly the same. It is a great waste of time and expenditure. The 97 Government can economise on their expenditure by changing the rules so that it is not binding on a court to award a right to such a report to an offender.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jay, spoke about human rights. There are references to human rights in the gracious Speech. I understand that at present the United Nations is considering a human responsibilities charter. I believe that that would be a potent balance to our emphasis on human rights. I welcome the move by the United Nations. I hope that the Government will give consideration to incorporating a human responsibilities charter into our law as they have done the human rights charter. I believe that that is needed to balance the present system.
I have one question on constitutional matters. It does not relate directly to the future of this House. In his admirable address yesterday, the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, spoke of the manifesto commitment to make Parliament more democratic. If I understood the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, correctly, she said that the Royal Commission will consider the role, function and composition of the House of Lords. My question to the Government is this. At the same time, could not the Royal Commission also consider the same qualities for another place? If we are to have the great procedure of a Royal Commission, could it not endorse the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, to make Parliament more democratic? In his admirable philosophical discourse on democracy today, I wondered whether the noble Lord, Lord Judd, would make the same point: that we need to look at another place as much as at this place. For instance, is the balance of power between the Executive and the legislature in another place correct for the 21st century? I question that.
Members of the general public frequently refer to the use of the guillotine in another place. I know that governments of every colour enjoy the use of the guillotine, but members of the electorate are appalled that another place can be stopped from discussing and considering legislation by the Executive use of the guillotine. I should like a Royal Commission to consider such questions along with issues relating to the role, functions and composition of your Lordships' House. That would be valuable in promoting democracy which, as I understand it, is what this Government wish to do.
There are many valuable issues in the gracious Speech. I do not agree with them all, but I support the legislation that I believe is beneficial to this country.
§ 7.48 p.m.
§ The Earl of Listowel
My Lords, in the past hours I have been experiencing the terror of someone who realises that the speech he has prepared does not meet the high quality exhibited by his elder Peers. I therefore say that I have learned much and look forward to reading Hansard tomorrow.
I make one request. Could the Government please commission a business consultancy to produce a report on the contribution that active hereditary Peers make in this House; and the likely consequences of their removal?
§ 7.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Wilcox
My Lords, as your Lordships know by now, I have a particular interest in consumer issues. I listened carefully to the gracious Speech to hear what good improvements the Government will be making for consumers. I know that there are Members of your Lordships' House who detest the word "consumer". Earlier tonight I had it explained to me over two sherries in the bar, so once again I shall define a consumer. A consumer is each man, woman and child in this country—your Lordships and me—when at some time during each day we use or buy goods or services, whether publicly or privately provided. It is not a citizen's issue; it is a consumer issue. I hope that your Lordships will bear with me and accept the use of the word which some of you find so difficult.
I looked at the gracious Speech to see what good work we could welcome. Some of the work that has been done by our new Government is very good indeed. We have on the statute book a reformed competition policy and we on these Benches have supported it. I was grateful for some of the amendments which were made. We have had White Papers on freedom of information and the Food Standards Agency and utility regulation reform. Therefore, together with many others, in particular the National Federation of Consumer Groups and the National Consumer Council, I am very disappointed that a freedom of information Bill will not be reaching the statute book this Session. I had hoped that this Government would build on the efforts of successive governments who paved the way for a freedom of information Bill this coming year.
The first significant move was in 1977. Then, under the government of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, the Croham Directive was issued by the Head of the Home Civil Service. It created a government policy to publish as much as possible of the analytical material used as the background to major policy studies. While chairman of the National Consumer Council, appointed by the Conservative government, I was free to lobby for more openness from that government—successfully.
The next important development towards freedom of information came during the previous Conservative government. The Prime Minister, John Major, introduced an open government code which came into effect in April 1994. The code set out circumstances in which the government would volunteer information and those in which it would produce information on request to individuals and organisations. People who were refused information under the code could appeal to the Parliamentary Ombudsman and ultimately to his Select Committee. The code was an important step towards opening up government to the scrutiny of the governed. But it operated at the discretion of the government department concerned, and then ultimately at the discretion of the ombudsman. Under this system, which 18 months on still operates, the Government still hold the cards because of its voluntary nature and because the ombudsman has no power to force the Government to provide information.
The White Paper, Your Right to Know, published at the end of last year, proposed significant improvements. It would give people a statutory right of access to all 99 information held by government and their agents unless there was a compelling reason not to disclose it; for instance, in respect of the defence of the realm. This would enshrine an individual's right to information in law. The proposed freedom of information commissioner would have the right to order disclosure and impose penalties for non-compliance.
I wish to give the reason why I, a Conservative, believe that freedom of information legislation is so important for everyone. I will use the example of medicines. In the United Kingdom, the decision about whether a drug should be available is taken by the Committee on the Safety of Medicines. Suppose that I am suffering from a condition for which a new drug is on the market. How do I decide whether to take it? What information will I have available to me on which to base my decision?
My doctor will receive a brief data sheet basically saying who the new drug is intended to help, who should not take it and how it should be used. If I am lucky, I might have a glimpse of that data sheet, but normally I will have instead a patient information sheet with general information about taking drugs and some very basic information about taking this one. Neither I nor my doctor will ever see any information about the trials of the drug or the thinking behind the decision to licence it, including what negative results have been disregarded and why. And, perhaps more importantly, those publications such as Health Which? or the Drugs and Therapeutic Bulletin, which could be providing information to help me decide, have access only to what the doctor receives.
By contrast, in the United States, which already has a Freedom of Information Act, anyone who requests it can get much of the information used by the regulator when deciding whether or not to licence the drug for use. And the regulator will also supply a justification for the licensing decision. While I myself may not want to plough through the hundreds of pages of the licensing information, I would know that the American equivalent of Health Which? or the Drugs and Therapeutic Bulletin had access to the information and would publish it in a way that I can understand. When in this country a drug which I have been taking for perhaps the past 10 years is withdrawn I cannot know or be told why I cannot use it any more. I may be very afraid of what has happened to me in the past 10 years, but ridiculously I can fax to the United States and within seconds receive across the airwaves that information—and that is not from my own country but from a foreign land.
Back in the UK, the regulator will tell me if the drug is safe for me. That has two implications. First, I believe that I have a right to be reassured that the regulator has taken decisions wisely. I can only really have that confidence if the information on which the decisions are based is publicly available. Secondly, once that decision has been made and the medicine which can help my condition is on the market, I need the fullest possible information about all the potential consequences of taking it. Only then can I take an informed decision. I am then "empowered"—something for which the noble Lord, Lord Judd, pleaded in a democracy.
100 Your Lordships may ask what is wrong with the ombudsman taking the decision. Who better than a regulator to decide what is safe? But medicine is not an exact science. There is no absolute safety. A decision to license a drug for use is not based on whether it is absolutely safe but on whether it is safe enough. It is often a political judgment as well as a scientific decision. In relation to drugs, decisions are often based on the absence of evidence that the drug is harmful rather than on the presence of guarantees that it is safe. The people of America can freely know that information, but in the United Kingdom—in my country—I cannot.
The uncertainty for the consumers about whose interests are given priority is compounded by the fact that the Committee on the Safety of Medicines does not contain one consumer representative, although I understand that from next year there are to be two out of a total membership of 34. That is a very closed shop!
A good freedom of information Act would make regulators and government much more accountable to the people on whose behalf they regulate. It would allow us to see the process of regulation, warts and all. If we had a better appreciation of that imperfect science, perhaps we would be more careful and perhaps we would read more carefully the instructions we are given and work in tandem with regulators in order to minimise the risks.
I am sorry that the Government appear to have lost their appetite for freedom of information. If they bottle out by giving our people a weaker Act than the White Paper promised, or if they let freedom of information quietly slip off the legislative agenda, we will all be the poorer in two ways. First, consumers will not have access to vital information to help them make proper decisions about important aspects of their lives. Secondly, the myth will be perpetuated that regulators, being all knowing and all powerful, can be left to make important decisions for the people of Britain while we sit back, childlike in our innocence.
In a world of ever-higher technology, rapid growth in our medical capabilities, vast multi-national enterprises, mass consumption on an even bigger scale and increasingly complicated investment opportunities, that myth cannot be maintained for much longer.
Over several decades, but notably more in opposition than in government, the party opposite has spoken with a great passion about the need for open government. But rather like an unfortunate groom, just as this Government's enthusiasm for the consummation of a partnership with the consumer is reaching its peak, their passion appears to be deserting them. I warned that the result is likely to be deep disappointment for the bewildered bride. For the sake of all Britain's consumers, I hope that the Government rediscover their ardour—and soon.
§ 8 p.m.
The Earl of Halsbury
My Lords, in addressing the House, I remind your Lordships that I have no interest to declare. If I am abolished tomorrow, well and good. If I am not, nature will do it in any event.
101 I wish to refer to two politicians whose speeches I have studied: Robert Walpole and Edmund Burke. They gave much attention to the representation of interests but they did not give any sort of exhaustive analysis of the ambiguity in both those words.
First, I take the word "representation". We say that a sample represents the bulk from which it is drawn. That is a short-term affair because the bulk from which it is drawn in nature will be changing the whole time. Your Lordships are well aware of the results of opinion samples in newspapers. From time to time, there is a surprise because public opinion has changed completely from what it was on the last occasion.
Then there is the other sense of the word "representation" where a barrister represents his client in court. That is a totally different meaning from the sampling of a procedure. That is a professional meaning of the word "representation".
As regards interests, there are two kinds of interests— short-term interests, which is what people want, and long-term interests which is what they need. An alcoholic wants a drink. That is a short-term want that can be serviced by the nearest bartender. What he needs is drying out. That is a long-term professional business.
If we then combine the two, we have a model for the House of Commons and the House of Lords with the House of Commons tending to people's short-term wants and the House of Lords tending to their long-term needs. One must note that people are frequently reluctant to take good advice when it is given. Therefore, the House of Commons would have the last word when wants and needs conflict.
How can we avoid the nomination to this House falling into the hands of one person? We can do that if, following the abolition of the hereditary peerage, we start to build a House from the professions.
I have found some figures. I must confess that they are about two years old, so they are probably out of date. However, 225 hereditary Peers were members of one of the chartered professional institutes out of a total membership of 527. Therefore, approximately 50 per cent, of the membership of this House has a professional standing and half of that comprises hereditary Peers. Their average attendances compare favourably with party attendances in the House. My statistics show that 34 is the average attendance of a professional man in this House. That compares with 30 for the Conservatives, 41 for Labour, 37 for the Liberal Democrats and 27 for the Cross Benches. In the future, we may turn the House of Lords into a senate of the professional classes, thus giving the patronage such a wide distribution—there are more than 91 chartered institutes—that it can never get into one pair of hands and end up virtually a unicameral legislature because, of course, that would be on the way to dictatorship. I agree very much with the picture painted by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, about the dangers of that. We must avoid it at all costs.
So the model I have given is a model for the eventual Royal Commission to study and to fill in the details which I have only sketched for your Lordships' House.
102 In the meantime, I must deal with things as they are. One of the works I commend to your Lordships for study is a book by a German sociologist, one Helmut Schoek. It is an extremely large, fat and expensive book which I bought and gave to the Library. At least one person has borrowed it because I cannot get it back again to check the quotation for the time being. But Schoek has a very high reputation and his generalisation at the end of his study on envy is that equalitarian societies are envy-ridden societies. That is something from which we must suffer. That is why the hereditary House of Lords has become a target for envy, much more than it was in the past. Exactly how we are to cure that manifestation, I do not know.
In conclusion, I was rather struck by what seemed a complete irrelevance in the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, in the last Session of Parliament when we had the two-day debate on the constitutional future of the House of Lords. She suddenly threw in, as though it were a criticism of the hereditary Peers, that 45 per cent, of them had been at Eton. Exactly what was the relevance of that I cannot imagine. However, out of curiosity, I started to check on the statistics of Prime Ministers from Robert Walpole to Harold Macmillan. I found that 41 per cent, of them had been at Eton which compares favourably with the 45 per cent, quoted by the noble Baroness. I do not know what inspired her to that quotation and I am sorry that she is not here to answer for herself. She has a copy of the statistics. I have given them also to all leaders of parties in both Houses and to my friends. Having said that, the time has come to sit down and just hope that things come out all right in the wash.
§ 8.7 p.m.
§ Lord Harding of Petherton
My Lords, due to other commitments, I too was unable to speak in the two-day debate on the reform of this House which took place in the last Session. Therefore, I am afraid that I shall talk about reform of this House and I hope that I shall not bore your Lordships in so doing.
As an hereditary Peer, I recognise that it is time that we departed as legislators. Indeed, as was stated implicitly in the Parliament Act 1911, that has been so for the past 87 years. It is not the fault of hereditary Peers that they have remained in Parliament for so long. If blame should be apportioned, the fault is with the governments and MPs over those years.
The difficulty has always been to devise a membership of the second Chamber so that it has legitimacy and yet does not take away the overriding power of the House of Commons. Many believed that by instituting life Peers, the problem was solved. Some still believe that. I am afraid that I do not share that belief.
This House as at present constituted is very good at revising legislation. Not all government amendments are as a result of the second thoughts of Ministers and civil servants. Academics speaking about this House often do not know what they are talking about and they get it wrong. Many amendments are as a result of Peers from the other two parties and the Cross-Benches forcing the 103 government of the day to produce their own amendments. That is particularly so when the government have a small majority in the other place, which happened before the last election. Government Ministers and their civil servants are loath to accept amendments other than their own. However, when it comes to contentious legislation, because of the large hereditary element in this place, the House of Lords cannot do its job properly. That has become glaringly obvious in recent weeks over the closed list system in the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. Because of its make-up, large numbers of the general public and respected political journalists such as Mr. Peter Riddell (who talks a great deal of sense), believed that the House of Lords had no right to hold up that Bill, even though they may not like the closed list system; even though it is quite legitimate—as other noble Lords have said much better than I—under our constitution that the House of Lords can only hold it up for a year. It was seen as an outrage.
We must have an upper House that is perceived as legitimate enough to be able to insist on amendments and, if necessary, to hold up a Bill for a year. Whatever the composition of this House, there will always be governments and their supporters—in the Commons and outside—who will be outraged at the Commons being defied and having legislation held up. However, the general public will not be concerned if the House of Lords is looked upon as a legitimate check on the government of the day.
Obviously, a reformed House should not do that too often. As presently constituted, this House has rarely sent back amendments or held up Bills such as the War Crimes Bill and, more recently, the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. The amendments insisted upon must have wide support with respected opinion in the country. As the Leader of the House said, if not today during earlier exchanges, why have not the Conservatives (my party) done this before? I would have supported my party leadership if they had. But that is easier said than done. As the Labour Party is aware, it must carry its supporters with it. At the moment the Labour Party seems to have solved that problem and is managing to do it with a small leadership. But for how long? In the end the party's supporters must be brought along.
Conservatives—with both a big "C" and a little "c"— have great affection for the House of Lords as it is presently constituted. I spoke to a Conservative audience three-and-a-half years ago in Dorset and said to them that hereditary Peers should go and the House of Lords should be reformed. It did not go down at all well. If I had been well known or a thrusting ambitious young Turk, my line of argument might have produced results. However, as a Back-Bench Peer it did not seem to me that I would do any good trying to change traditional attitudes.
That is why my party leadership has not wanted to tackle the problem in recent years. I would have liked my right honourable friend John Major, when he was Prime Minister, to have done so, but he would have had to carry Conservative opinion in the country with him. The easy part would have been to carry both life and 104 hereditary Peers and MPs; the difficult part is to carry Conservative voters and conservative thinkers. I have talked to many people about the reform of the House of Lords and was often told, "We like this place". They did not necessarily vote Conservative in the last election. They like the House as it is. Opinion polls show that many people throughout the country— perhaps even those who vote Labour—may not like what the House of Lords does, but have affection for it.
I have great sympathy with those who say, "If it works, don't fix it" and "No change for change's sake". But the present arrangements do not work and it is important that they are fixed. I may be accused of hypocrisy in holding those views. But I have been interested in politics since I was a boy and have therefore been extremely lucky to be able to come here regularly over the past seven-and-a-half years. As my noble friend Lady Strange said, to me it is a perfect place; it has a marvellous atmosphere; but as a hereditary Peer I recognise that it is an anachronism, and has been for a long time.
The Prime Minister said that he will divest his office of most of the appointments of life Peers to the House of Lords. That is welcome. We will take him at his word, though we must also see that it is laid down by statute. In my opinion, that is still not good enough. The upper Chamber must have a substantial elected element. As my noble friend Lord Dixon-Smith said this afternoon, it may be that a wholly-elected second Chamber is the only real answer in the end. However, that is not realistic in the foreseeable future. Hereditary Peers may go with regret and resignation; I cannot see life Peers leaving so easily.
I would favour a partly-elected upper House as an interim measure. Although I am totally against proportional representation for election to the House of Commons, I do not see why it should not be applicable for Members of the upper House—but no closed lists. The Government say that they are determined to reform the House of Lords in two stages. That was stated in the gracious Speech. I urge the Government to be wary of doing that and to think again even at this late stage. Reform should be undertaken in one go. I will support my noble friend Lord Cranbome in any parliamentary action he takes and advises us on these Benches to take to force the Government to change their mind. However, I am not in favour of the proposal of my noble friend Lord Onslow to act as hooligans. That is not the way that Members of your Lordships' House should act and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Cranborne will not be doing that. I shall trust his judgment.
With the election of the Labour Government with a large majority and a mandate to do away with hereditary Peers, we on these Benches must face reality. However, as far as we are able, we must insist that proper reform takes place which preserves this House as a revising Chamber with a legitimacy recognised by the majority of the electorate. I look forward to the Government's White Paper and the setting up of the Royal Commission.
§ 8.17 p.m.
§ Lord Phillips of Sudbury
My Lords, I wish to speak on the legal affairs aspect of this debate which has so far not attracted a great deal of comment. Yesterday in the gracious Speech there appeared the commitment:My Government will introduce legislation to modernise legal aid to make the system fairer and more cost effective; to provide for a community legal service; and to make other changes to overhaul the justice system".In the other place the Prime Minister confined himself to saying that legal aid would be "radically" transformed. This afternoon the Leader of the House stated that, with what she called a "heartland" issue for the Government,citizens [will have] better access to justice in our courts".As a still practising solicitor after 34 years' qualification, who spent five years in a general country practice before setting up my own firm in London, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on what seems to me a crucial underlying issue vis-àvis justice; namely, access. My preoccupation goes back a long way. I seem to recollect that the Lord Chancellor and I were in attendance at a conference in Oxford in 1967 or 1968 which preceded the launch of that seminal Fabian pamphlet, Justice for All. Whatever I may say by way of criticism, I do not doubt the just and good intent of the proposals which the Government have put forward. Afterwards I was the first chairman of the Legal Action Group.
I make two things clear. The first is that, showing proper concern for the cost of legal aid to the taxpayer and with the ballooning complexity of ordinary citizens' legal lives, there are no easy answers to legal aid improvements, especially if there is no extra money. In the present year the net cost of all legal aid will be £1.6 billion, split roughly one-third each in respect of crime, family and civil legal aid. In fact last year legal aid expenditure was less than budget, and in three years' time the Government estimate that it will have dropped to £1.55 billion. Given that this sum is not inflation adjusted and that the cost of running legal services, as with health, tends to run ahead of inflation, that represents a significant real decline in solicitors' income.
If calls on the system go on rising—and last year they were three per cent, up at 2.3 million cases—the shoe, already pinching, will pinch even more for the hard-pressed legal aid solicitor. Rates of reward for legal aid work have fallen further and further behind inflation, and even more behind remuneration for private practice, particularly for commercial firms. For example, the hourly rates for giving advice under what is called green form legal aid work is rather less than the typical central city firm will charge for the time of a trainee solicitor. By and large, legal aid work is hard, intensely pressurised and attracts little public notice, thanks or esteem.
Many are giving up, heading for easier pastures, and I predict that many more will do so if these reforms come to pass unaltered. The thrust of the Government's proposals is to seek to control legal aid, both as to cost and quality, principally by means of what is called 106 exclusive contracting. Over five years ago the previous government introduced franchising of legal aid, giving firms which took out a franchise—and there was no exclusivity, importantly—some modest advantages over those who simply did legal aid work on a case-by-case basis, particularly in terms of more regular payment.
The Government wish to take this process a crucial stage further and over time propose to confine legal aid work to those firms which comply with the whole range of Legal Aid Board criteria and tender for the work covered by exclusive contracts at a price which the board is willing to accept. The overwhelming effect of the exclusive contracting proposals will be an unprecedented and dramatic reduction in the number of solicitors and firms doing legal aid. Whereas at present there are no fewer than 11,000 solicitors' offices undertaking some legal aid work, the Legal Aid Board proposes that only 2,000 to 3,000 exclusive contracts will be awarded to solicitors in the family case category, and a mere 100 to 200 contracts to cover other areas of civil work.
On top of that, 200 to 300 contracts are expected to be awarded to charity providers of legal services—and I wholly applaud that—the majority of them in the field of death and welfare benefits. The Prime Minister was certainly right when he said legal aid would be radically transformed. Who could have believed that it would be at the expense—not just the choice—in a minority of cases of any practical access to lawyers at all?
Yet geographical access, I need hardly say, is vital. The issues we are dealing with here have some similarity to the plight of the general store in villages or country towns without the countervailing benefit of big firms panting to snaffle their business at cheaper rates. The reality here is the very reverse. The larger firms of solicitors have much bigger fish to fry at far, far higher fees. When Sir Hartley Shawcross, as he then was, moved the Second Reading of the Legal Aid and Advice Bill in 1948, he said that the Bill was,the charter of the little man to the British courts of justice.So it was, but whatever else this Bill is, it is certainly not an "access to justice Bill" at all. If one remembers that legal aid is these days available to less than half the population—originally it covered 80 per cent.—and if one realises that for all the general affluence, a sizeable and increasing minority of our countrymen are poor as well as confused and if one recollects, too, that for all the general mobility, public transport is simply not available in many parts of the country and invariably expensive when it is, and if perhaps above all one realises that there is a major psychological barrier to access to legal services, one will then realise what a catastrophic reform this has the potential to be.
In response, the Legal Aid Board will say, as reported to the Lord Chancellor last month, that access is really not a problem. What it calls "outreach work", particularly via telephone services, is to be the substitute. The board claim that,these outreach services may provide us with a means of ensuring access in certain rural areas and for specific client groups.The PSI research on which this startling judgment is based seems seriously inadequate to support such a heavy weight of policy. In saying that, I make no 107 criticism of the researchers. They were not asked to do any research with solicitors in private practice at all but confined themselves to charitable organisations, 200 to 300 of which will be awarded contracts.
Secondly, the researchers were not asked to look at the results of the advice by telephone from the client's viewpoint, nor at the objective quality of the advice given. In short, they did not look at actual cases but at systems. The whole tendency of the proposed exclusive contracting reforms and, to be fair, some which have preceded them, will be to create a two-tier and ultimately two-class profession—something which the original architects of the legal aid scheme strove mightily to prevent.
Already many firms which undertake a significant amount of legal aid work are asking: is it worth it? Even if they are able to meet the new criteria for exclusive contracts, the bureaucracy, the inflexibility and the demands of the new legal aid regime are increasingly being seen as too onerous. Perhaps I may read briefly from a letter I received only today from a practitioner in Gravesend, Richard Miller, chairman of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, which comprises 600 firms, and who therefore knows what he is talking about:This firm is a typical High Street practice. We have one office, four partners, 10 other fee earning staff and around 20 support staff. We are the only firm in this town which holds a welfare benefits franchise which means that we have demonstrated quality standards in the advice we give in this complex area. At any one time, we are handling between 60 and 80 welfare benefits matters of varying degrees of complexity. We probably handle at least 200–300 cases in the course of a year. Under the new scheme being proposed for next year, there is a requirement that the person in charge of the welfare benefits department should personally carry out at least 350 hours of work on welfare benefits matters. Because the rates of pay for this work are so low, the only economic way to do it is to delegate the more mundane aspects of the work to more junior staff. The new scheme prevents this from being done. The result of this is that when exclusive contracting is brought in, my firm will probably not be able to apply for a contract and this firm's years of experience in dealing with welfare benefits matters will be lost to the local community.That is a pretty sobering and depressing letter. What one is seeing, I believe, is that the firms currently doing legal aid, which are supported by more profitable work, will no longer be able to rely on that as the scheme develops and the effects of it have their impact. They will fall further and further behind the profitability of private client practitioners, and the chances of this or any other government devoting significantly more funds to the legal aid scheme, particularly to improve the remuneration rates for the lawyers involved, can be more or less written off. This is all too likely to lead to demoralisation and a decline in standards, quite apart from reduced geographical access. No amount of externally applied quality assurance standards will be able to remedy that.
The belief of those on these Benches and my own conclusion, based on a great deal of knowledge and discussion I have had with other members of my profession in legal aid practices, is that the total impact of exclusive franchising will be to produce a dramatic reduction in access. I put it to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that to reduce the number of solicitors' firms available for legal aid from the current 108 11,000 to a mere 3,000 has obvious consequences. I very sincerely hope that even at this stage there will be a serious review of that central proposal and its effects.
I, and I am sure many in the House, will be wholly behind the Government's aspirations vis-à-vis a community legal service. It has been argued for by Liberal Democrats and lawyers for a very long time. We shall do everything possible to make it an effective reality. But on the issue of access there seems to be absolutely no doubt but that the consequences will be a disaster for the most vulnerable sections of our community and in time will lead to a two-class solicitors' practice and profession with predictable consequences for those who most need those services. It is a dry subject. I remind the House that behind legal aid stands a concept built into the very bones of this place; namely, the notion that, as Magna Carta decreed,to no one will we sell, deny, or delay right or justice".
§ 8.32 p.m.
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, in his opening speech my noble friend Lord Cranborne drew attention to the number of times that the word "modernise" was used in the gracious Speech. There is a danger that if the Government go on using that word as a cloak for unsound policies it will become like the word "peace" in the early days of the Cold War. They will discredit the word and discredit an admirable purpose.
It seems that the Government are seeking to race forward at such a pace and on such a wide spectrum in changing our constitution that there is a real danger that our very fragile and complicated constitution could be reduced to a shambles. That would destroy one of our historic strengths. For centuries the British constitution, from Westminster to judicial review, has been most effective in protecting us from tyranny and in protecting the individual from ill-treatment by the Executive. If it were harmed that would diminish our influence abroad. I remind the Government—although I am sure they are fully aware of it—that British influence on the world scene is now far greater than our economic weight alone would justify, and long may it be so.
As regards House of Lords reform, I myself start from five propositions. First, a second chamber is essential. Secondly, the present House of Lords does a pretty good job in practice. Thirdly, we should not expect an elected chamber to do a better job. Indeed, I contend that it is likely to do a less good job. That would apply even more to a partly elected House. Fourthly, to distinguish between the legitimacy of hereditary and life Peers is wholly spurious. Fifthly, we should recognise that the Government are quite determined to seek to end the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords.
In the short time I have at this late hour, I shall focus on the third, fourth and fifth of those propositions. With regard to an elected second chamber, I have a real worry about the legislative quality of the House of Commons. In the time I have observed it, it has deteriorated and it is continuing to deteriorate. That deterioration can be measured in two ways. First, there is the decreasing independence of view and action; and, secondly, the 109 falling level of expertise and experience from outside. Partly that is the unavoidable consequence of large majorities, which applies to any government. More seriously, it is the product of the overkill of the early Nolan philosophy, the apparent assumption, certainly by the media and to a most regrettable extent by the Nolan Committee, of the infinite corruptibility of MPs. That has already introduced conditions of membership which are making many who would previously have contemplated a parliamentary career unwilling to do so. A distinguished Member of this House, a Cross-Bencher, said to me yesterday, "Treat MPs like pygmies and you get pygmies". I hope that the new Neill Committee will be less reactive to tabloid pressure.
The concept of legitimacy put forward so frequently by government Ministers is clearly flawed. Hereditary Peers are constitutionally every bit as legitimate as life Peers. Frankly, in terms of democracy, it is hard to see more than a shade of difference. Certainly, I have never seen myself as a jot more legitimate in purely democratic terms than my hereditary colleagues. Until there is a legislative change, hereditary Peers are legitimate and should be treated as such. I echo the argument used by the noble Lord, Lord Shore, last week and so powerfully reinforced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, this afternoon. Therefore, I ask that from now on we hear from Ministers no more of the legitimacy argument about hereditary and life Peers.
However, I am prepared to accept that the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords should be removed. Therefore, I support those words in both the Labour manifesto and the gracious Speech. The reasons I am prepared to go that far are: first, the theoretical membership of the House of Lords, at 1,300, is far too large, and, at 750, there are too many hereditary Peers. Many do not attend at all. In the 1995–96 Session, which lasted 136 days, 165 Peers never came to the House. In the 1996–97 Session, which was a short Session of 79 days, 181 Peers never attended. Therefore, in practice those particular hereditary Peers are not legislators.
Some attend infrequently. We must admit that in the past they have come to muster support for the Tory Party. If we consider those who attend, but for less than one day in four, in the 1995 Session there were a further 240 Peers. In 1996–97, 209 Peers attended for less than one day in four. I can understand why the Labour Party sees the arrival of backwoodsmen as an objectionable practice. Thus one can probably say that of the 750 hereditary Peers some 400 are in a sense "out of the frame". Some of those who attend regularly appear to make little contribution. I emphasise that that applies just as much to life Peers who attend quite frequently. There are a very few—they get plenty of media coverage—who, it is generally accepted, are not appropriate candidates as legislators.
I understand that regular attenders are classified as those who attend more than one day in three. Over the two most recent Sessions that covers about 210 hereditary Peers and 230 life Peers. If we are a little more rigorous and suggest that attendance on half the 110 days that Parliament sits makes for regular attendance, then for those two Sessions the figure is 160 hereditaries and about 180 life Peers.
So I start from full agreement with the Government's fundamental position. But then we come to the crucial question of how to achieve that, and of course then we are back to the old argument about babies and bath water. I have been a Member of this House for seven years and I have been immensely struck by the hard, effective, unpaid work which our hereditary colleagues perform. We have in this country a tremendous tradition of voluntary service, at every level of government, from the grass roots of the parish council to the House of Lords—and, indeed, at every level of charitable body. It would appear that the Government are proposing, at one legislative stroke, to eliminate this in one of its most distinguished forms. This I totally reject.
The figures I quoted earlier suggest that, very roughly, the work of the House of Lords is divided fairly evenly between hereditary and life Peers. Just to illustrate that—admittedly, arbitrarily and subjectively—some of the hereditaries we would lose from the clean sweep approach would include: on the Labour Benches, the noble Lords, Lord Strabolgi, Lord Genfell and Lord Berkeley; on the Liberal Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury; on my own Benches, the distinguished scientific experience of the noble Earls, Lord Selborne and Lord Cranbrook; and on the Cross-Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Northbourne, the noble Countess, Lady Mar, and my noble kinswoman, the noble Baroness, Lady Darcy de Knayth.
How, therefore, can the Labour manifesto commitment be implemented while, at the same time, ensuring that hereditary Peers continue to make their contribution within the parliamentary framework?
I, for one, would find it quite unacceptable if behind closed doors deals were made between the two opposition parties and the Cross-Benches for a certain limited number of their flocks to be made life Peers. That would be a malignant combination of patronage and cronyism. It would be as bad as the closed list for the European Parliament, eliminating the awkward squad, leaving only the safe supporters—the poodles, not the rottweilers. I do not believe that individual hereditaries should depend on the usual channels for their lifeboat. What a lesson we have to learn from the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, who, in his maiden speech, made a fascinating reference to what Edward Gibbon said on this subject.
How, therefore, do we achieve the result that we all want and accommodate the Labour manifesto? First, let us consider Privy Counsellors. Membership of the Privy Council reflects one of the highest tributes to eminence in public life. Being a Privy Counsellor is probably much better than being a Knight and so on. There are 192 Privy Counsellors in your Lordships' House. Of those, 30 are hereditary Peers. I would hope that all of those would be allowed to stay.
In addition, I believe that there should be an electoral college formed from the 500 hereditary Peers who have been the most active attenders in the last two Sessions, and that they should be empowered to elect 100 of their 111 number for a Parliament. Such a scheme would conveniently mean that the size of this House would be reduced to approximately the same size as the House of Commons. It could be seen as an interim stage, to continue until the Royal Commission had completed its work. I have some confidence that it would form a very satisfactory long-term framework for the House of Lords.
I have declared myself to be sympathetic to the stated objective of the Government. However, I would oppose with all my vigour a clean sweep of all the hereditaries. The status quo would be much better than that.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, could he clarify something? I think he said that about 250 hereditary Peers attended each day. The exact number does not matter, but was he implying that it was the same hereditary Peers who attended each day?
§ Lord Marlesford
My Lords, the figures I gave were the figures of those individuals who attend more than a certain number of days in each Session.
§ 8.44 p.m.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I rise to speak to two aspects of the gracious Speech. The first is the access to justice Bill, which was effectively dealt with by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. No doubt the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will comment on the noble Lord's remarks.
Anyone who has been a Member of Parliament for a constituency, as I had the privilege of being for a number of years, cannot but help reflect on those occasions when poor, well-driven people came to their Member of Parliament—not to solve their housing problems, educational problems or immigration problems, but because, by one means or another, they had strayed into a need for access to justice.
Although we are well aware in general of the good work done by the legal aid system, in my experience there has always been a great need to improve access to justice. As I see it, the access to justice Bill is part of a broader programme of modernising justice. It would aim to fulfil a manifesto pledge to create a community legal service. It would help to create a fair and efficient system of justice, operating in the interests of the people who use it and the wider public. It would encourage a greater range of high-quality, value-for-money legal services for those who need them most. It would make the best possible use of the public money which supports legal services, reduce restrictive practices in the legal profession, simplify and speed up civil court procedures and help government initiatives to tackle crime by reforms in the courts.
I have listened to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, and I respect his vast experience. He has laid a number of challenges before the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor to be dealt with in his wind-up speech, which I have every confidence he will rise to. Apart from that, I am not competent to make any further comment. I 112 speak from the heart on the need for what is set out. Whether it will achieve the objective or not, I do not know.
Secondly, I applaud the Bill to deprive hereditary Peers of the right to sit and vote in this Chamber. I have listened, sometimes with sadness, to the way in which Members on both sides of the argument feel it necessary to sneer at and attack the motives, the background and the historical interest which Members of the hereditary peerage bring. That is not the way to win arguments. Over the next period I look forward to taking part in debates which are well fought, hard fought and in which those on both sides of the argument will speak with passion.
I can fully understand the feelings of an hereditary Peer whose family has enjoyed the privilege of that position for 100, 200, 400 years and the sadness with which he and his family may view the loss of his ability to sit and vote as being the end of the world. It is not. All that it says is that it deprives the person of the right to sit and vote in this place. I listened very carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, when he objected to the spurious difference that had been cleaved between hereditary and life Peers. I make no distinction. We are all politicians. We are all members of a political House. The basis and the raison d'être for the Opposition fighting so strongly is that it is selectively to be deprived of one of its most powerful political weapons: that before a vote is taken, because of an accident of birth, they can rely on a whole swath of people. When people say "Well, Ted, if it was reversed what would you say?", I think I would fight just as hard not to lose the privilege, not to lose the majority. They have got it. We ought not to be mealy mouthed. The Opposition is fighting to retain something which has been in their party interests for hundreds of years. We are entitled to try to deprive them of it.
In the past few weeks I have been interested to see how the Opposition have tried to turn the issue into one of "Tony's cronies" and have suggested that the House will be filled with Labour nominees. Not for the first time the Library has produced some interesting statistics. I have before me a document setting out Peerage creations between 1958 and 1998. According to the record, over the whole of that period 945 life Peers were created. Of those 945 life Peers, the present Prime Minister has to his credit 105, which is 9 per cent, of the total. Under the column headed Thatcher, we see that 216 life Peers were created, which is 23 per cent. of the total. Under the column headed Major, we see that 171 life Peers were created, which is 18 per cent. of the total. The administrations of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and John Major created four times as many life Peers as Tony Blair has created. Therefore, the party opposite ought to reflect seriously on whether they are misusing the argument.
Lord Beloff: My Lords, should not the noble Lord allow for the fact that we have had to put up with Mr. Blair for only 18 months whereas the Tory administrations lasted for that number of years?
Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, if we are going to debate this matter, it should be recognised that 113 two points are already on the record. First, unlike the Conservative Party, the Labour Party has declared that it does not wish to see any party with a majority in this House, as the party opposite has enjoyed for many years. Secondly, the Prime Minister has said that he is not only willing but he will give up his ultimate right of patronage. Those are two enormous gifts and that ought to be part of the record.
Earlier this afternoon the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, wondered where the Government's right to act in this matter as they are acting has come from. The answer is simple. It comes from the other House. The other House is largely peopled by Labour Members of Parliament who were put there by the electorate. The doctrine of the mandate is clear and the mandate indicated that, as a first self-contained step, the Government would proceed with these matters. I am well aware that, although a party may win one general election, there is no guarantee that it will win the next election. It ought not to take the electorate for granted. I do not believe that my right honourable friend is doing that.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, and others have argued that we are acting too hastily. They say that they share our view that reform is needed and change is required. For 18 years, with absolute power, the party opposite did not lift a finger. However, as soon as this Government bring forward their plans, there is a cry of "haste". I make a genuine offer to all the hereditary Peers to whom I want to give their cards. I have in my hand a postcard. It states, "Labour clears the way", and on it there is the House of Lords being battered by the workers. What I have in my hand is a facsimile of a poster by the Labour Party in 1910. We have been attempting to make a change of some kind—noble Lords will be aware that the policy has changed over the years—so I do not think it is fair to argue that we are acting with undue haste.
What propositions have been advanced by the other side? I do not think that we have heard anything sensible. The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, alleges that the House is being sold snake oil by snake oil salesmen. I can advise him that the best way to apply snake oil is to rub it in, and I enjoy doing a bit of that using snake oil at the moment. For too long Members on this side of the House have won the argument on many an issue but have lost the vote by virtue of the votes of hereditary Peers.
Perhaps I may remind the House that when last week noble Lords on the Benches opposite argued against the Government they constantly used the term, "We are doing it on principle". I remind the House—
§ Lord Pilkington of Oxenford
My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord to address a problem which has perplexed English government for a long time. I refer to the enormous executive control of the House of Commons. A former leader of the Labour Party reminded his Members of Parliament that unless they wore his dog collar they could not get elected. Does the 114 noble Lord, as a former Member of the House of Commons who cracked legs, not feel that he should give some consideration to this point?
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I find it rich to hear that coming from the party opposite, which has enjoyed an in-built majority of 300 or 400 over Labour's hereditary Peers. I find it rich that those who have enjoyed and misused their power here are now, when the boot is on the other foot in the other place, arguing for the Government to call off the dogs and to give them a chance. The people of this country were invited by the noble Lord's party and by mine to express their views in a democratic election. The party opposite was whipped; it was rejected; it was run out of office. I am not going to wave goodbye. What has happened is the result of democracy. We know what happens to people who argue that it is better to run the ship with a smaller number. All I say is that the House of Commons reflects the will of the people in a free election.
We hear the constant cry, "Why change the House of Lords? It works". Of course it has worked: it has worked for the party opposite. That is why it does not want to change the House of Lords. It wants to keep the House as it is. Let me remind the House of some of the issues on which the party opposite felt on principle it ought to use its hereditary majority and get its way. On 12th February 1996 an amendment to the Community Care (Direct Payments) Bill, extending grants to people with learning difficulties, was rejected on a majority of the hereditary Peers' vote. On 24th June an amendment to the Asylum and Immigration Bill, to exclude unaccompanied children from fast-track asylum procedures, was rejected by the party opposite on the weight of the votes of the hereditary Peers. On 25th June an amendment to the Housing Bill, giving greater security to temporarily housed homeless families, was rejected. Where were their principles on all of those issues? The principles they operated on were, "We have power and we are going to use it and abuse it".
Many of us will remember that during the war Churchill said to Roosevelt, "Give us the tools and we will finish the job". On 1st May the British people gave us the tools, and this time we intend to finish the job.
§ Lord Campbell of Alloway
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may quite calmly ask him a question. I have a great respect for the noble Lord, as the House knows. He said that the Government have a mandate. Of course, they have a vast mandate. Let us assume that some people read the manifesto and let us assume that at that time they all thought it was a good idea to do away with hereditary Peers, without, so to speak, putting anything else in their place and to set up a wholly nominated Chamber. The noble Lord talks about a mandate. Surely the noble Lord will accept that that mandate no longer subsists; it is long past its sell-by date.
§ Lord Graham of Edmonton
My Lords, I listened carefully to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, whose views I respect. I refer to a mandate which is clear and unambiguous. However, I take his point as 115 regards whether many people or any people read it in detail. The first part of the mandate is clear; namely, that a self-contained piece of legislation will remove the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote. Like many others I am agog to know the precise details of what will follow in the second stage. Of course it would have been easy for the Government or their policy makers to produce a detailed second stage, in which case noble Lords opposite would have latched their teeth onto it straight away. The Government are undertaking the widest possible consultation to which everyone can contribute and out of which I hope will arise a better second Chamber.
§ Lord Sudeley
My Lords, in contrast to the speech we have just heard, I believe that the Bill to eliminate the hereditary peerage is a tragedy owing to the understanding which the aristocracy has of inheritance and tradition. As regards the power of inheritance and tradition, one has to consider only the existence of the present state of Israel.
During the summer Recess the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, who is a hard rationalist on matters of House of Lords reform, wrote to me to say that during the debate on the future of the House which took place last month the Government would answer the question which I put to her in my correspondence as regards whether any Bill to abolish the hereditary peerage would be illegal under the Parliament Acts. As no answer was given by the Government during that debate—rather on the level that not answering letters is the way the world works—I had to table a Question for Written Answer on this subject so that the question cannot be evaded.
Under the Parliament Acts we are used to the inability of the House to delay legislation from the other place for more than a year. However, with the abolition of the hereditary peerage we may be entering a different area. Is it legal under the Parliament Acts for one House to dismantle the other House without its consent; in other words, can Parliament commit hara-kiri with itself?
During a speech which he made before the election, the Prime Minister said that his fundamental objection to hereditary Peers—whose titles, he said, emanate from illegitimacy in the Royal bedchamber, though, in point of fact, it is more often the case that they were awarded for honourable service to the government (if we cannot libel the dead at least we should honour them)—is that they have voting rights and thereby provide an in-built Tory majority in this House. However, speaking rights are much more important than voting rights. In consequence of speaking rights things happen. We have to consider only the number of amendments won in this House simply by argument on the Floor of the Chamber in Committee. In consequence of the debate which I introduced in the House in 1973 on the export of manuscripts—one of the quiet glories of England which represent the continuity of our institutions since the Middle Ages—the provision of copies of manuscripts going overseas has much improved. Our present Government seek to disrupt that continuity.
116 Without the success of my Prayer Book protection Bill in 1981, it is thought that the Prayer Book would have disappeared. That was an important victory as the new services secularise Christianity when that is not what Christianity is about. I can claim only less than half the credit for that victory, as much was due to the skill with which Professor David Martin of the London School of Economics handled a press conference so that not a single national newspaper did not favour the traditionalist case.
I may be an hereditary Peer and a Tory Back-Bencher, further to the right than my own side, but I believe the situation is difficult when so many hereditary Peers do not believe in their own case. We need to rely on a life Peer to advocate our cause. The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, is the best advocate of our cause. On individual issues I have received much support from Labour parliamentarians. My debate on the export of historic manuscripts was suggested to me by the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, who was then on the Labour Front Bench. As regards my Prayer Book protection Bill, my principal supporter was the noble Lord, Lord Glenamara. My forthcoming initiative on bankruptcy has been much welcomed by a Labour Member of the other place, the Member for Great Grimsby, with whom I am working over opposition to usury in its old sense of lending money without taking a share of the risk. I hope that more parliamentarians will join our isolated cause. Usury was appropriately condemned in the Middle Ages. When Henry I was absent, this House emasculated all moneylenders and the present damage caused by usury is evident when banks need the support of public opinion for the sake of their own custom. With the present Government's conviction as regards political democracy, why do they not give us economic democracy, with the abolition of usury and the reassumption by elected governments of the supply of our money on a debt-free basis?
During the debate last month on the future of the House of Lords much was said about the danger—by the removal of the independent hereditary element of the House of Lords—of not curbing the power of the Executive. This quarrel has existed ever since the struggle in the Middle Ages between the Crown and the baronage, to whom I was then related. In the Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester there is a vivid account of how during the conflict between Henry III and the baronage the barons' sheriff of Gloucestershire was ridden over by horses on the royal side. The Quinquennial Act is important. Whatever mask may be assumed by the Government as regards greater democracy, we are moving in the direction of a dictatorship, not only in this area but in other areas too.
The Home Secretary has advocated the abolition of the Royal Prerogative. The arrest of General Pinochet took place without consideration of whether we have an independent judiciary. Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw would have dealt with all this very well but they are now both dead. We need another gifted playwright to take over and to lay on an entertainment for us in the West End. The Prime Minister's smile may destroy him in the end.
§ 9.6 p.m.
§ Lord Goodhart
My Lords, today has been a truly historic day because I believe it is the first day in living memory, perhaps in all history, when a Lord Chancellor has sat in your Lordships' House elsewhere than on the Woolsack. I look forward to the even more historic day when for the first time he will wear his trousers in this House!
But, more seriously, we are now at the start of an historic Session. Today's debate has not matched the seriousness of the occasion, which is perhaps inevitable. That is because what we have had is largely a re-run of the debate we had some six weeks ago. When expressing reservations about the quality of the debate today, I wish to make an exception for the three maiden speakers. The noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth, made a thoughtful and constructive speech. The brevity and charm of the noble Earl, Lord Dunmore, set an example which some other noble Lords would have been wise to copy. I hope that they will both forgive me if I give a particular welcome to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell. I do so because he now holds an office, that of the Master of University College, Oxford, which my father held some 40 years ago. The noble Lord spoke today with the experience and wisdom derived from a long and brilliant career in the Civil Service.
The debate today has been on legal as well as constitutional affairs. Not surprisingly, constitutional affairs have dominated. Legal affairs have been touched on only to a limited extent, notably in the most distinguished speech by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, and in the powerful speech by my noble friend Lord Phillips of Sudbury.
It is difficult to make comments on legal matters now because the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is to wind up the debate. Until he does so, we have little information to go on and, of course, when he sits down, that will be the end of the debate, so this is the time for questions rather than comments about the proposed access to justice Bill.
I come to my first question. We had a lot of discussion in the last Session about legal aid. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor accepted that the rules on legal aid could not be changed as quickly or perhaps as fundamentally as was originally proposed. Does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor now accept that legal aid will remain essential for many types of case; for example, in medical negligence cases where there is a need to commit oneself to substantial expenditure before it is possible to find out even whether there is a viable case?
My second question is: Will the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor give a proper trial to the contingency legal aid fund system advocated for many years by Justice—perhaps I should say that I chaired a committee which prepared the original pamphlet on the subject—and more recently by the Bar Council and the Law Society?
Thirdly, a discussion paper was published earlier this year about rights of audience. I support most of the proposals in that paper. However, the proposal that the 118 Lord Chancellor could impose rules on professional bodies without the concurrence of either Parliament or the judiciary is open to the most serious objection on constitutional grounds. Those objections were made strongly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, in another location, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, pointed out in today's debate. I have seen a suggestion in the press that the Lord Chancellor now accepts that there should be a need to obtain parliamentary approval for enforced rule changes. Is that correct?
Fourthly, there have been suggestions in the press that an exclusive franchising system is intended to be extended to criminal legal aid. If implemented, that would mean that legally aided defendants in criminal trials could use only firms or chambers approved by the Legal Aid Board or some other official body. That would be the end of the defendant's right to be defended in a criminal trial by counsel of his choice. Are those suggestions true? If so, they are likely to meet with strong opposition from these Benches.
Before leaving legal matters, I should like to endorse very strongly the speech by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce. No Law Commission Bill has been enacted since the general election and if none is enacted in the coming Session, there will be a gap of at least three years in enacting any Law Commission proposals. I would remind the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor that the Law Commission was created by one of his predecessors, the Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Gardiner. A great deal of valuable work has been done by the Law Commission. I hope that the Government will now ensure that it comes to fruition.
I turn to constitutional issues. Perhaps I may start with the two Bills where drafts have been promised for this Session and legislation deferred until the next. I welcome the practice of publication of draft Bills and hope that that will be extended as far as possible.
First, I turn to the Bill to implement the report of the Neill Committee on party funding. As a member of that committee, I welcome the confirmation that the Government will legislate on that report and I entirely accept the decision not to include that in legislation for this year. The report was not delivered until mid-October. It was more extensive and perhaps more radical than was generally expected. It will require extensive consultation with parties in all parts of the United Kingdom and cannot in practical terms be ready for legislation this Session.
I am, however, much less happy about the delay in introducing legislation on freedom of information. That was a manifesto commitment. An excellent Green Paper on the subject was published in December 1997. It asked for comments by the end of February this year. Nine months on, all we are promised is a draft Bill.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, that freedom of information legislation should not inhibit frank discussion on policy issues. There has been plenty of time to take that kind of issue into account. I fear that the delay means that the departmental rats have been gnawing at the Bill. The Home Office has taken over control from the Cabinet 119 Office. Frankly, that is like transferring responsibility for guarding a flock of sheep from a sheepdog to a wolf. I hope I am wrong in this, but when the draft Bill is published we shall scrutinise it very carefully.
I turn finally to the two issues that have become interlinked over the past weeks: the future of the European parliamentary elections Bill and the future of the hereditary peerage. What happened last week was, I firmly believe, unconstitutional. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, that this House has a duty to scrutinise carefully the provisions of a Bill and, if it thinks it proper, to amend it. But that is not to say that this House should insist on the amendment to the end, against the opposition of another place.
Speaking from these Benches three weeks ago, in what was, I believe, round two of the battle, I said that if Conservative Members were serious in trying to insist on their amendment, they would push us into the most serious constitutional crisis for decades. That is exactly what has happened. For the first time for nearly 50 years—with the sole exception of the War Crimes Bill in 1991, which was a minor Bill and a special case because of the circumstances of its passage in the other place—this House has triggered the Parliament Acts procedure, and it has done so on a manifesto issue.
The Government are not faultless. There was scope for compromise which would have given the Conservatives slightly more than a review while preserving the essence of what the Government were seeking. But for the Conservatives in this House to pose as defenders of democracy is humbug. Their real motive—as, to be fair, they have made perfectly plain— is to block the Bill and force us back to first-past-the-post for the elections next June.
I do not want to go at great length into the respective merits of closed and open lists. We have spent too much time on that topic already. But I must say one thing. The open list system chosen by the Conservatives is perhaps the one system that is arguably worse than that of closed lists. It means that the 80 or 90 per cent, of voters who will probably want to vote for a party list will not be able to do so. To say that you cannot vote for a party list seems no more democratic than to say that you must vote only for a party list.
The Conservative amendment has had a better press than it deserves. The Conservatives succeeded last time round in hoodwinking no less than five Bishops into voting with them. But we are reaching a point where they are in danger of believing their own propaganda. Some speakers seem to believe that the leaders in the Daily Telegraph are the voice of the people. They really believe that across the country in pubs and clubs, on buses and in the tube, people are saying, "God bless Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, the champion of open lists and democracy, the scourge of closed lists and dictatorship!" That is not in reality what is happening. What is happening is that your Lordships' House is seen to be flexing arthritic muscles to block the will of an elected House of Commons.
That brings me to the reform of this House. I acknowledge that the hereditary peerage has made a valuable contribution to the political life of this country 120 over the past 87 years. But for all that time it has been living on borrowed time. The hereditary membership of this House was an anachronism in 1911. How much more so is it an anachronism now? I do not believe that the hereditary Peers, or their allies among the life Peers on the Conservative Benches, are entitled to dictate the terms on which the hereditary Peers will leave this House. I say that fully recognising the personal sadness that this will involve for hereditary Peers of all parties. I have not long been a Member of this House; however, I have been here long enough to develop a great affection for it and a great sense of the very real privilege of being allowed to take part in its affairs. It will be a sad day for me when we life Peers are called upon to vote for our own removal from this House, as we surely shall be, to make way for our democratically chosen successors.
I know that the removal of the rights of hereditary Peers is in a sense the end of seven centuries of history. I can understand why the descendants of great historic families like the Cecils or of those who have more recently rendered outstanding service to this country do not wish to leave this House. But they will have to do so. Before the end comes, I believe there is one last service they can give to their country; that is, as the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, said, to leave this House with dignity and self-restraint.
I fear they may not do so. I fear that because in the past few weeks I have felt a presence in your Lordships' House of a ghost. It is the ghost of the first Earl of Halsbury, the ancestor of the noble Earl who spoke earlier this evening. The first Earl of Halsbury was a former Lord Chancellor who, at the age of 87, led those Conservative Peers who wished to die in the last ditch in defence of the rights of the peerage against the Parliament Act of 1911. He must be looking down with pleasure at the recent behaviour of the Conservative Party in your Lordships' House and hoping that this time there will be a fight to the finish.
Wiser heads prevailed in 1911. Will they do so again or will the Conservatives die in the last ditch in defence of the indefensible, as Lord Halsbury wanted them to do in 1911? Will the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, be the Halsbury of 1999? We shall see.
§ 9.20 p.m.
§ Lord Kingsland
My Lords, I cannot help beginning by saying that I found the final remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, to your Lordships' House to be a bit rich. Many noble Lords will recall that 30 years ago your Lordships' House voted by a vast majority to reform yourselves. The fact that that did not happen was due to a decision by the government, in a democratically elected place, another place, the following year.
There is no complaint, and I do not speak as a hereditary Peer but I hope I speak for the hereditary peerage, about the fact of the departure of the hereditary Peers. But there is a complaint about the proposed manner of their departure. No better evidence of that exists than the vote of your Lordships' House 30 years ago.
121 My noble friend Lord Cranborne allotted to me the task of dealing with those matters that arise out of the impending access to justice Bill. Like others of your Lordships, I have not yet seen that Bill. I do not know what its contents are. Therefore, I thank my noble friend Lord Cranborne for allotting to me this part of the day's business. However, coming at the end, I feel I have a duty to cast some glances at what has been said on constitutional matters.
I start by referring to the three excellent maiden speeches that we heard today. The noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, as befits an astute orator declaiming his maiden speech, tantalised us on controversial issues without positioning himself. I refer to the freedom of information Bill. I thought, in the last remarks that he made, that I detected some blades of long grass.
I turn to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth. I must say how lucky your Lordships' House is to have such a distinguished constitutional expert joining your Lordships' ranks. He made an important point that one of the many items, but perhaps the most important one, missing from the Government's constitutional agenda is the strategy behind it. We do not know what that strategy is. We do not think the Government know what that strategy is. Of course, it has not been a question that any government needed to answer during the previous few centuries—because our approach to constitutional change has been gradualist. Since Oliver Cromwell no government have dared such an adventurous programme. Therefore, it is not surprising that the noble Lord should pose such a fundamental question.
As yet we have no answer to that question. But I hazard that the real threat is that the centre may not hold. We have devolution to the judges and to the component nations of the United Kingdom but nothing to hold the centre together, save perhaps the political parties. Should we be asking questions about how democratically run those parties are since they seem to be the only part of the constitution that will hold the periphery together?
Lastly, noble Lords heard the maiden speech of the noble Earl, Lord Dunmore. He reminded your Lordships' House of its trans-continental reach. I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, that the noble Earl's speech was characterised by charm and brevity—characteristics that are, almost invariably, dominant in your Lordships' House. I understand that the noble Earl's eldest son is called Viscount Fincastle. I record our gratitude to that famous name who, a century ago, won the Victoria Cross on the North-West frontier in the most brave and distinguished circumstances. It reminds us of one of the reasons why we value the hereditary peerage in your Lordships' House.
I was struck by two remarks by members of the Government in the course of the controversy the previous week about the European Parliamentary Elections Bill: "affront to democracy" and "frustrating the will of the democratically elected House". I regard 122 those remarks as nonsense for three reasons. First, the powers of your Lordships' House are given to it by another place. That other place is democratically elected. The constitutional rights possessed by your Lordships' House have a firm democratic foundation. Those rights were given to your Lordships' House for a purpose: from time to time, to ask the democratically elected House to think again. If necessary the democratically elected House has authorised your Lordships' House to go as far as to require the invocation by another place of the Parliament Act.
Since those powers have been given to your Lordships' House it must have been anticipated by another place that from time to time they would be used. They have been used very sparingly. I believe that this is only the fourth time that your Lordships have taken the matter this far. There are no grounds whatever for saying that your Lordships' House is frustrating the will of another place.
There are two other reasons for regarding the remarks as nonsense. The Bill is itself inherently undemocratic. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, admitted that when he said that one of the advantages of the closed list was that it allowed candidates to be elected to the European Parliament who would otherwise not be elected on open lists. What better refutation of democracy can one have than that?
Finally, I should have found the allegations about an affront to democracy more firmly based had they been made with the background of an intention by the Government to replace the present composition of your Lordships' House by a democratic Chamber. But that is not the case. As noble Lords know, the composition of the present House will be replaced by a purely nominated House. It is therefore simply not fair to accuse this House of not being democratic when it will not be given the opportunity of being democratic, at least in the foreseeable future.
I cannot predict what will happen to the Bill when it returns to your Lordships' House. But when it does, I hope that, whatever other allegations are made against Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, there will not be one of acting without full democratic authority.
My noble friend Lord Cranborne asked the noble Baroness, Lady Jay, a number of questions about the timing of stage two. I know that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will wind up for the Government. Therefore perhaps I may remind the noble and learned Lord what those questions were. First, will the Royal Commission deal with the issue of powers as well as the composition of your Lordships' House? Secondly, when does the noble and learned Lord anticipate that the Royal Commission will report? Thirdly, when does the noble and learned Lord anticipate that the Government will react to the Royal Commission's report? Fourthly, does the noble and learned Lord believe that the Government will adopt the Royal Commission's recommendation, whatever it is? Fifthly, do the Government feel bound to introduce stage two immediately after the Royal Commission has reported?
123 I ask those questions because they are important to the Opposition. The Opposition have said that if there is a guaranteed stage two, our attitude to stage one will be different from the attitude that we adopt now. It must therefore be in the interest of the Government to give clear and unambiguous answers to these questions.
I turn to the few questions that I wish to ask the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor about legal matters. Since the noble and learned Lord has become Lord High Chancellor of England he has introduced a radical programme of legal change, both in the administration of justice and in the procedures of the courts. I refer to the noble and learned Lord's proposals for legal aid; his proposals to change the rules of the High Court and county court; his proposals for contractual arrangements between the Government and solicitors for the carrying out of government legal business; and issues connected with the qualifications for appearing in the High Court for solicitors, barristers and employed lawyers.
Has the noble and learned Lord given any thought to what effect those changes will have on the structure of the legal profession? At present the legal profession is constituted somewhat like the medical profession. There are the solicitors—the general medical practitioners; and the barristers—the specialists. The noble and learned Lord has often spoken with admiration about the way in which the medical profession arranges itself. Does he continue to think that this relationship between solicitors and barristers should dominate the structure of the legal profession; or has he something else in mind?
Were the noble and learned Lord to stand back and consider his changes as a whole, would he not be tempted to come to the conclusion that they will dramatically change the relationship between the Bar and the solicitors' profession, in such a way as to create de facto fusion? If he were to reach that conclusion, would it be one that he would regret or one that he would welcome?
As regards legal aid, he was quoted in the Sunday newspapers—I know how unreliable they can be so perhaps he was misquoted—as saying that 46 per cent, of the legal aid budget is spent on 1 per cent, of criminal cases. I do not know whether that is accurate, but his reaction indicates that it is roughly accurate. If so, it suggests to me that 99 per cent, of criminal cases which are financed by legal aid provide very good value to the state. Does not that suggest to the noble and learned Lord that far from a radical reform of criminal legal aid something ought to be done simply about that 1 per cent, of cases?
I am reminded of the story of the taxpayer who received a tax demand from the Inland Revenue with his name misspelt. He wrote back to complain. The Inland Revenue replied that it would be better for the taxpayer to change his name by deed poll. I believe that the radical change of legal aid proposed by the noble and learned Lord is out of all proportion to the problem he faces.
Finally, I turn to a matter which was dealt with most eloquently in a recent lecture by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Steyn, and upon which the noble and learned 124 Lord, Lord Ackner, has also written and spoken. It relates to the powers which the noble and learned Lord is said to wish to adopt with respect to decisions about rights of audience in court and legal training. At present, his power is shared with the designated judges. It is reported that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor wishes to have the last word on all these matters. Does he not believe that that would breach the principle of the separation of powers?
He will be the first to recognise how dangerous that would be were it to be true. For two centuries before the advent of universal suffrage in this country, the fundamental guarantee of freedom was the separation of power. We were a free country for 200 years before we became a democracy because everyone was equal under the law, including and perhaps above all the Executive. So the separation of power, and the crucial role which his predecessors from their unique vantage point, played in protecting it, is very precious in our constitution.
If the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor is to have the last word on the education of lawyers and on which lawyers can appear in front of which courts— indeed, on the whole question of rights of audience— does he not honestly believe that that will be a fundamental breach of the principle in circumstances where judges and barristers today are often the only protection the citizen has against an overweening Executive?
§ 9.38 p.m.
§ The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg)
My Lords, in replying to tonight's debate, I shall focus first on legal issues and then on constitutional issues. Noble Lords will appreciate that the debate has ranged far and wide and I shall not be able to answer every detailed point. I shall try to deal with the most important points. Noble Lords may write to me on any subject and be assured of a detailed answer.
The Times this morning described the proposals for legal reform as the biggest shake-up in legal services for 50 years. I agree. A leader in the newspaper suggested that the Government were taking on the lawyers. I disagree. Few lawyers, in their hearts, could defend some aspects of the present legal system, even though some will try. We do not aim to take on the lawyers. We aim to work with them to create a better, faster and more cost-effective system.
However, our focus is not on the lawyers; it is on the clients, on the people who use the system. Their interests must come first before the interests of those who work within the legal world. An access to justice Bill will be introduced which will bring about much-needed reform in many areas.
First, it will give the Government power to control the spiralling legal aid budget and focus the money where it is most needed. There is vast unmet legal need in our country. Much of that occurs in our most disadvantaged communities but it falls outside traditional legal aid. We cannot offer hope and support to people in acute need unless the existing system is brought under effective control. Year on year, the taxpayer has been paying more and more for legal services while fewer people 125 have been helped. For too long, lawyers working at taxpayers' expense have not needed to show expertise in the area of law in which they are operating with public subsidy; nor have they been required to satisfy anyone that they are providing best value and high quality. Those exemptions from the principles which govern all other public services cannot be allowed to continue.
The Bill will replace the Legal Aid Board with the legal services commission which will be responsible for the community legal service and the criminal defence service. The community legal service will have power to enter into contracts with lawyers who have proven expertise in their area to provide legal services at fixed prices. That will be an opportunity for the good lawyers to flourish and a challenge to others to develop relevant specialist skills.
There is little logic about what areas are and are not supported by legal aid at present. The community legal service will analyse the legal needs of our communities, prioritise those needs; and then develop plans to deliver the legal services needed. The community legal service will work in partnership with other funders and providers of legal services, building on local expertise and local services to supplement legal advice and assistance where it is needed most.
A court-based legal solution will sometimes be appropriate. There are many other cases where mediation or alternative dispute resolution in other forms will provide a quicker, cheaper and more appropriate answer to the client's needs. The powers in the Bill will allow those services to be supported as well as the traditional routes to the courts.
There are some areas where public subsidy is unnecessary to provide access to justice. Lawyers employed by trade unions and their members have been effectively operating conditional fees in personal injury cases for years, with a zero uplift, at no cost to the unions. They have been a great success, delivering access to justice for their members. This Government are prepared to learn from their successes. Unions have succeeded in making their lawyers more efficient and with examples of good practice like that, it is impossible to justify the demand for public subsidy from the less organised and less efficient.
The Bill will also address unjustifiable restrictive practices about which lawyers can appear in which court. There is no justification for preventing employed lawyers appearing in our courts. I cannot accept the notion that an employed lawyer faces unresolved conflicts of interest, has lower ethical standards or cannot be trusted. Any lawyer appearing in any court has a first and overriding duty to the court, not to his client or employer. As a practising barrister for 30 years, I can tell your Lordships that I never saw any evidence that there were any doubts about that. That duty to the court, confirming the present position, will appear on the face of the Bill. We wish to ensure that advocates are chosen because they have the skills to do the job, not because they belong to one part of the profession or another.
126 The Bill will create a new criminal defence service to provide high quality legal defence services for those appearing before our courts. To ensure that anyone appearing before our courts gets the best possible representation, the Bill will take powers so that contracts for these services will only be placed with those lawyers in private practice who have proven ability in this complex area. Criminal law is too important to be left to anyone who does not have a specialist skill and cannot demonstrate sufficient competence. The contracts will, so far as possible, be at fixed prices so that the taxpayer gets value for money.
Contrary to the rumour mill, I am happy to confirm that the Government have no plans to move towards a wholesale public defender service. However, we have a duty to ensure that citizens charged with criminal offences get the best representation and the taxpayer gets the best value for money. That means we do not exclude the possibility of directly employed lawyers being a part of criminal defence services. It will be interesting to compare costs and quality with those of lawyers in private practice under contract. Meanwhile a public defender service is being piloted in Scotland.
The Bill will follow the recommendations of the Bowman Report on the organisation of the Court of Appeal and will establish the general principle of one level of appeal.
These reforms—taken together with the reforms of court procedures inspired by the Woolf Reports—will change the legal landscape in Britain. Judges, barristers, solicitors, para-legals and advice workers will all see the way they work change in the coming years. I am confident that the legal professions recognise that change is needed if we are to provide a better service to the people who really matter—those who need legal advice and help and come before our courts.
I can offer the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, who is no longer in his place—
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, I apologise. I am delighted to see the noble and learned Lord in his place; he must never hide his light under a bushel. I want to give him some comfort on Law Commission Bills. I expect to bring forward two more reform Bills this Session: a privity of contract Bill and a trustee delegation Bill. But for a decision of your Lordships' House in its judicial capacity which put the law to rights, I would also have been bringing forward a Law Commission Bill in relation to mistake in contract. I can assure the noble and learned Lord of my strong support for the work of the Law Commission in getting its Bills onto the statute book.
The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, expressed concern that franchising in criminal cases will make inroads into the principle that a defendant can choose his own lawyer. I can offer him reassurance. In most cases suspects and defendants will be enabled to choose any lawyer who has a current contract with the criminal defence service. The contract will guarantee a quality assured lawyer and that is in the interests of defendants.
127 In very high-cost specialist cases—for example, criminal fraud cases—choice will be limited to a specialist panel. But again, that is a guarantee of quality and it is still choice.
The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, should be the first to recognise—having cited the statistics, though not entirely accurately, that 46 per cent, of the criminal law budget goes on 1 per cent, of high-cost cases—that, in an area where there has been some notorious publicity about the high fees that those cases have attracted at the expense of the public purse, there is an overriding need to bring those fees under proper and reasonable control.
Another point I should like to make to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury—obviously I cannot reply to all his points of detail but if he desires to write to me I will write to him—is this: it is not the Government's role to guarantee a particular structure for the legal services industry. The Government's duty is to guarantee and to secure the best quality of advice and service for consumers at prices affordable by the taxpayer.
So far as rights of audience go, I can reassure the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, that there will be no violation of the separation of powers because, in the unlikely event that I, as Lord Chancellor, having consulted with the judges and with the professions, have to exercise a fallback power to impose rules upon the profession—and I am as great an enemy of rules which are too lax as I am an enemy of rules which are too restrictive—I would not do so without the support of an affirmative resolution of both Houses of Parliament. When that is said, as I say quite unequivocally, I can see no ground for argument that there is any violation of the separation of the powers.
I turn to the Government's commitment to major constitutional change. Our objective is to put in place an integrated programme of measures to decentralise powers in the United Kingdom and to enhance the rights of individuals within a more open society. We are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for his interim assessment of this part of our programme: nine out of 10 for trying, seven out of 10 for achievement. I say to the noble Lord that in my book those are pretty good marks. I hope that perhaps in the eyes of history we will score even better. Perhaps we will even persuade the noble Lord to score our card better as our programme beds down and is tested, as it will be by events.
It was essential to settle our priorities and to make early progress to establish momentum from the word go. Less than a week after the election the Cabinet had decided on the constitutional measures for inclusion in our first legislative programme. The noble Lord, Lord Butler, in his notable maiden speech, called attention to that speed of progress—a great co-operative effort, he said.
Those measures were devolution to Scotland and Wales through a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly; a referendum on a strategic authority and elected mayor for London; the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights; a Bill to provide for the establishment of regional development 128 agencies in England; and provision to give the Bank of England operational responsibility for setting interest rates.
First, we brought forward proposals for the creation of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. These democratically elected bodies will take control of a wide range of public services, currently the responsibility of central government departments and unelected bodies. Devolution to Scotland confers, subject to areas expressly reserved, a general power of legislative competence on the new Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish executive will have responsibility for most aspects of domestic, economic and social policy, while the United Kingdom Parliament will retain control of foreign affairs, defence and national security, social security and macro-economic and fiscal areas. Relations with the European Union and with other foreign governments will, however, remain the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government.
Devolution is not a form either of federalism or independence for Scotland and Wales. The Union will be strengthened, not weakened, by devolution and the Westminster Parliament will remain sovereign in the United Kingdom. I must say to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, that I could give no real meaning to his musings about the state of the opinion polls in Scotland unless he was reverting to type and declaring that devolution should have been withheld since he claims it will lead to independence for Scotland. That argument is well in the past. I am sure that devolution will secure, not break, the Union. I say to the noble Viscount that a dog-in-the-manger attitude to Scottish devolution does not mark out a bright, optimistic route for the resurrection of Tory Party fortunes in Scotland, where it was wiped out at the election. It is not a promising platform for a party seeking to come back from the grave in Scotland to ask the electorate to vote for it and to return it to the new Scottish parliament when it is not reconciled to devolution.
The Belfast agreement also has constitutional implications. There will be an Assembly of 108 members, with legislative and executive powers on social and economic issues. In time it may also take responsibility for law and order. These are complex mechanisms, but they hold out the prospect of constructing stable and widely acceptable political institutions in Northern Ireland.
We have also put forward proposals for extending regional government in England, but not until popular demand is demonstrated. As a first step we are creating regional development agencies to co-ordinate transport, planning and economic development. We have also set out plans for revitalising government within London. For most people it is inconceivable to think of any major capital city of the great size and importance of London without its own city-wide government. Yet for over 10 years London has had to do without after our predecessors abolished the Greater London Council. Despite that, London has continued to thrive. It remains a world-class city. But like all major cities it faces problems such as traffic congestion, air pollution and areas of inner-city poverty. These are problems that must be tackled on a city-wide basis.
129 Our proposals for a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly, a mayor and authority for London, and in the new political settlement in Northern Ireland in each case were put to the people in the regions affected in separate referendums. In each case the Government's proposals have been endorsed and any further proposals for regional government in England will be subject to approval in referendums. We are also committed to having a referendum before we join our European partners in economic and monetary union. We would only join a single currency if the Government, Parliament and the British people agree that we should do so. The wider use of referendums in the United Kingdom marks our insistence that people must have a determinative say in major constitutional change.
Openness is also fundamental to good government. Confidence in government has been undermined in the United Kingdom by a culture of secrecy.
My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the noble and learned Lord's flow. But before he leaves the subject of referendums, can he give me some kind of answer to the question I asked during my opening remarks as to what the Government's attitude will be about legislating for the fair holding of referendums before any more are held?
§ The Lord Chancellor
My Lords, that is something that the Government will address in the context of the Bill which will be published before the Summer Recess on the subject of the funding of political parties. I said that openness is fundamental to good government and that confidence in it has been undermined in the United Kingdom by a culture of secrecy. Therefore, our manifesto included a commitment to introduce a Freedom of Information Bill. Our first legislative programme did not include such a Bill. There were those who claimed that we had lost our appetite for openness at the first taste of office. But in fact we simply wanted sufficient time to devise from within government a regime across government which would be as liberal as possible consistent with the protection of the national interest. Complex problems do not benefit from hasty solutions. But I can give an absolute assurance that there will be a Freedom of Information Bill which will be published early in the New Year. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that she need have no doubt that such legislation will be brought forward and that it will constitute a strong freedom of information regime. The media, too, will gain largely from that regime if it operates the Act with vigour, as I am sure that it will and should.
Another key part of active citizenship is for citizens to know their rights and how to enforce them while at the same time knowing how to respect the rights of others. Hence the Human Rights Act giving greater effect to the European Convention on Human Rights. These human rights proposals will prove to be a 130 landmark step in guaranteeing fundamental human rights in Britain. Meanwhile we are engaged on a major programme of training our judges to implement the Human Rights Act in all—I repeat, all—our courts, high or low.
I do not repeat what my noble friend said at the outset of this debate about the reform of your Lordships' House. But it is as well to remind the House that this Government won a majority of 179 at the last general election. We have an unambiguous mandate to remove the hereditary Peers. Let me read it:As an initial, self-contained reform, not dependent on further reform in the future, the right of hereditary Peers to sit and vote in the House of Lords will be ended by statute. This will be the first stage in a process of reform".Nothing could be clearer. Nothing I say would become the hereditary Peers less than if they fail to go quietly and respect the clear will of the people. I hope that they will accept the dignified judgment of the noble Lord, Lord Harding of Petherton, and reject the invitation to mark their departure by hooliganism.
The noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, asked various questions about the White Paper. The noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, had no need to repeat them, I was busy scribbling them down. I can give some assurance to the noble Viscount. The White Paper will cover how Peers will be appointed in the interim House; it will cover the timing of the Royal Commission. I can say, quite unequivocally, that there will be a stage two. The noble Viscount is afflicted by the most advanced state of suspicion that I think I have ever observed. I do hope that it is not terminal. It is very extreme.
The White Paper will cover the terms of reference of the Royal Commission, including its anticipated timetable. I hope that in the White Paper it will be possible to name the chairman of the Royal Commission, if he has not been named earlier. The White Paper will set out options for the Royal Commission to consider; it will address the role and functions of the House and it will consult widely. The White Paper will come in the context of the Bill. Noble Lords will have to wait only a little longer. Patience, therefore, should replace the noble Viscount's advanced state of suspicion. Quite apart from anything else, I rather think it will be good for his health.
The noble Lord, Lord Vivian, asks: why such a hurry? The answer is absolutely plain—because the presence of hereditary Peers is a centuries old state of affairs which this Government have a huge mandate to eradicate. I say this to him: the case for not combining stage one and stage two is that we won the general election on the opposite proposition.
With the strong public support for our agenda, we have seized an historic opportunity to modernise our constitutional system. Unless we modernise we will never secure the levels of commitment, interest and trust needed to develop and maintain real practising democracy in this country.
I shall close by repeating a familiar quotation: "There is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women". So said Margaret Thatcher, as she then was, in 1987. We profoundly disagree. Society 131 does exist. It is the weave of personal, political and contractual relationships in which we all participate every day of the week. It is the set of values—of decency, trust, tolerance and mutual respect for one another's rights and freedoms—that hold us together as one nation. It is the word describing the common interests we serve as civilised, responsible, active citizens. Yes, we are all individuals, but we are not isolated from each other. We owe obligations to each other and our total success in life depends, substantially, on each other. It is that recognition which informs our constitutional programme to put in place integrated 132 measures to decentralise power in the United Kingdom and to enhance the rights and freedoms of individuals within a more open society.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, on behalf of my noble friend Lord Gilbert, I beg to move that this debate be adjourned until tomorrow.
§ Moved, That the debate be adjourned until tomorrow.—(Lord Carter.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly until tomorrow.
§ House adjourned at six minutes past ten o'clock.